Can a first-set tiebreaker determine the course of a match? A tournament? A year? A career? Such questions are tempting on the heels of Juan Martin del Potro's first-round win at the Australian Open yesterday, and while we'd better leave the latter three of those questions alone, it seems pretty obvious that Delpo's 7-6 (15-13) first set against a game Dudi Sela deflated the loser and boosted Delpo's confidence, enabling him to roll through the next two sets tidily: 6-4, 6-4.
U.S. readers may understand and even smile at the thought of calling del Potro Big Blue, that sobriquet having been on lease to the New York Football Giants for decades now. But the cognomen isn't apt merely because Delpo is big (6-6) and perpetually seems to be dressed in blue or some shade thereof. He also plays a brand of tennis comparable to the style of football that earned the Giants the "Big Blue" acknowledgment. It's essentially smash-mouth football, or tennis, and Delpo was a master of it until last year at this time, when a wrist injury during this same tournament forced him into what would ultimately become a full year off.
Which brings us to a few more "big" and "blue" themes. When del Potro first burst upon our radar in 2008, it was in a big way. Although he won his first ATP tour title in Adelaide in 2007 and ultimately ended up the youngest player in the Top 50 (he was just a shade over 19) for the year, he simply blew up halfway through the following year.
In the summer of 2008, he won titles on clay in Stuttgart and Kitzbuhel and, without missing a beat, moved to hard courts and bagged the championships at Los Angeles and Washington D.C. In one of those hard court events, he accomplished something of which few players are capable: He overpowered Andy Roddick. There are a fair number of ways to beat Roddick, but blasting through him isn't usually one of them.
Delpo's streak continued, against all odds and, to some degree, contrary to all we thought we knew about how tough it is to excel on successive days and in consecutive events during the debilitating dog days of July and August, before a body wilts. The run finally ended at the U.S. Open, where Andy Murray throttled Delpo in the quarterfinals.
By then, we'd noticed a few other things about the surprisingly quick and unexpectedly durable native of Tandil, Argentina. His demeanor and the image he projected were those not just of a gentle, slump-shouldered giant, but one whose undemonstrative personality hinted at a touch of depression. He often seemed blue. He'd told us that were he not a tennis player, he would have pursued a career in architecture, a revelation that was both refreshing (imagine that, a tennis player who didn't suspect that down deep he's another Ronaldo!) and understandable, given that an architect can spend much time dreamily locked within his own mind, building fabulous things.
Still, Delpo is more Harold Solomon than Howard Roark, so it was not exactly surprising when, his wrist injury having become a much bigger issue than first thought, reports circulated last year that Delpo was suffering from anxiety and perhaps even bouts of depression.
What could we expect? One moment, the guy is pounding Roger Federer into oblivion in the U.S. Open final (2009), the next he's back home in Tandil, unable to swing a racket. Not only did Delpo miss a chance to defend his first major, he didn't even get a chance to win or lose in one following his moment of triumph. He had plenty of reason to be blue. In his press conference yesterday, he said: "I had a very bad year. For three or four months nobody knows about my wrist. I think that's a bad thing for my mind."
Del Potro returned to competition late last year and, after playing poorly and losing two first-rounders in Asia, pulled the plug on 2010. He went back to the drawing board after a humiliating 6-3, 6-0 loss to Feliciano Lopez in Tokyo. In his first match of this new year, he battered that same opponent through three grueling hours in Sydney before finally punching through, winning two of three tiebreakers. That win took a lot out of him (Delpo would lose his next match in desultory fashion to Florian Mayer), but it turned out those three 'breakers were good practice for Sela. When they reached 6-all in that first-set tiebreaker (with Sela wiping away a set point with a service winner), they were less than halfway to the point of resolution.
The tiebreaker is an interesting and daunting challenge for a player who isn't in peak competitive form, and there's no way a pro can get into that degree of shape simply through practice. The sparring partner could be Rafael Nadal or Federer, it doesn't matter. The synapses fire and the nerves sing in entirely different ways when it really counts, and both players know it.
So Delpo's ability to win a tiebreaker against a tricky, sometimes Santoro-esque rival, after having been down five set points was, in its own right, a herculean achievement that probably earned a much larger return than is usually warranted from such a brief investment of time and energy. The moment he cracked that giant forehand crosscourt winner, you could almost see Delpo issue an enormous sigh of relief and hear him think: I can do this, I really can!
What I liked about Delpo's game was that he continued to hit -- or tried to hit -- a big ball, even when he was in a tight jam. At times he didn't get adequate depth on his groundstrokes, which is critically important for him and a virtue that played the major role in his upset of Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final. You can pin that down to nerves and the inhibitions bred by lack of exposure to stress.
At other times, Delpo appeared somewhat sluggish, which could not have been attributed to his degree of fitness, despite Delpo having confessed that he wasn't in ideal shape when he tried to make his original comeback last fall. So the sleepy quality had to be nerves again, and/or a lack of that instant response reaction that comes from competitive seasoning. Even a naturally quick player can appear slow or flat-footed when he's not utterly, neurologically immersed in a match.
But the important thing is that Delpo endured; he struggled, hung in there, sloughed off the pressure when Sela held set points, kept his frustration and concentration in check when he blew opportunities of his own (none of them in a way that might induce a roll of the eyes, unusual in a tiebreaker featuring a total of nine set points), and he got plenty of stick on the ball on some critical occasions, including the set-ender.
Delpo's game and career are presently like one of those giant 1,000 piece puzzles. You know from the box what the completed picture is meant to look like, but it's hard to get started, to find among those thousand pieces a few that can be identified as part of this or that portion of the landscape and fit together. Delpo isn't expecting miracles, even if some of his fans are. As he said, "I know the way to win matches. I just need time to do it."
Yesterday, it seeemed, Delpo found a few of those pieces and began to put the puzzle together. I think the pieces he found were from the top of the puzzle, pieces of a big, blue sky.