Kids These Days

by: Steve Tignor | August 11, 2008

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DpIn the two years that he’s been making the main-draw scene, I’ve found it hard to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Juan Martin Del Potro. At first glance, there seemed to be nothing but upside. Literally—the Argentine prodigy is 6-foot-5 and strikes the ball as cleanly from the ground as any player of any height. Throw that in with the fact that two years ago, at 18, he was the youngest player to finish in the Top 100, and last year was the youngest in the Top 50, and we seemed to have the makings of the ATP’s next juggernaut.

But there were questions. The service toss was high and the motion had a hitch that robbed him of some of the power that rightfully belongs to a man his size. The forehand backswing was loopy, and the stroke lacked the precision that’s at the core of all the world’s best shots from that wing. The guy looked a little too long—ungainly—to hit with both power and consistency. Finally, there was his youthful lack of tactical focus. Del Potro hit the ball well to every part of the court, but that’s all he did—he seemed more reactive than constructive in the way he approached points, and a little generic stylewise. It wasn’t clear whether he was good at winning, or at least beating quality opponents. Coming into Sunday’s final at the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles, he was 1-13 against Top 10 players.

In L.A., some of those questions began to be answered. Del Potro came away with a prize scalp when he beat former No. 1 Andy Roddick in the final. More impressive was how routine he made it look; from first point to last, Del Potro was the more poised player. He dictated the action with both his serve and his return. His long arms enabled him to stab back more of Roddick’s wide deliveries than most guys can, and when the American hammered his serve into his strike zone, Del Potro had no trouble timing it, taking it early, and even getting his share of full swings at it. In the second set, he ripped one of those full swings for a crosscourt return winner. Roddick, who was testy from the start, shook his head in disbelief. How could this guy could take a “114 [mph] into the body” and treat it with such disdain?

Kids these days, huh? They’re just getting better and better. You can add Del Potro to the list of young guns making their moves this summer. This was his third straight title, after wins on clay in Stuttgart and Kitzbuhel. Del Potro obviously has a South American’s comfort on dirt, but he says his favorite surface is hard court. Part of that may be the bounce. As smooth as he is from the ground, timing is always an issue with a guy as tall as he is. Hard courts allow him not to worry about his contact point.

He couldn’t have looked any more assured in dismantling Roddick. Del Potro set the tone in the rallies without taking any chances or getting out of his comfort zone. A typical point saw him start a backhand-to-backhand rally, push Roddick deeper into that corner and force a weak slice, then run around and punish a forehand—inside-out, inside-in, he had plenty of time to decide where he wanted to drill the ball. But even when he did, there was a healthy margin for error built into those shots. His easy balance and anticipation made it look like he was playing a practice set.

Del Potro’s service toss is still too high, but he used that shot well Sunday. Rather than go for bombs, he emphasized first-serve percentage (72 percent, with just one double fault) and placement, swinging Roddick wide in the deuce court to expose his backhand on the next shot. The commentators for ESPN kept looking for a sign of nerves, but Del Potro didn’t give them any. As the second set wore on, he started to let loose more with his forehand and send the ball closer to the lines, but rarely out. Roddick never broke him, and just when Del Potro needed a big serve, at 2-2 in the second-set tiebreaker, he came up with his first ace of the match.

As for Roddick, there wasn’t much to like about this performance; he helped Del Potro in any way he could. He rarely put himself in a position where he could force the action. Instead, he spent most of his time pinned in his backhand corner chopping back uninspired slices. It’s odd to say for a guy with a game as big as Roddick’s, but he had no way to hurt Del Potro. He made no inroads with his return, where he often looped balls back from behind the baseline even on second serves. The same was true in the rallies. Roddick, even when he was given a ball to crack, couldn’t make his opponent pay a price when it counted. And on his serve, the Argentine’s got back half a dozen balls that would normally have been winners for Roddick. The American couldn’t rely on the freebies he’s always manufactured with his serve. You could see the difference.

Can we see a change in the men’s game from watching this match? I would say yes—toward size, toward backhand power, toward baseline versatility, toward all-surface skills, toward the return as a weapon of almost equal value as the serve. Roddick, of course, is the dinosaur in that formulation. It doesn’t mean the U.S.’ best player is going straight downhill, or that his serve is soon to be useless. But it does mean that a 19-year-old South American just beat him in straight sets on a hard court in a small American tournament that seemed tailor-made to give him a boost of confidence. If that’s not exactly a revolutionary event—Roddick is no longer No. 1, or even No. 5—it seems at least evolutionary. You could see it not only in the way Del Potro hit the ball, but in the way he carried himself. Nothing phased him: After a dubious injury timeout by his opponent in the first set, the Argentine came back out with the same calm focus he'd shown from the beginning and got right back to work. He still a little ungainly, and his forehand a little imprecise—I'm not prepared to put him in the Top 10 just yet—but maybe he’s going to be better at winning than I thought.

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