One (Large) Step at a Time

Monday, February 28, 2011 /by

Jmdp Juan Martin del Potro: Is he the Elvis of tennis? In 1977, famed and brilliant rock critic Lester Bangs eulogized the King by saying that “he was the last thing that we’ll agree on.” The “we” was the baby boom generation of music fans who had grown up with Elvis, but who by the mid-70s had splintered into various subcultures, like punk and disco, that loathed each other. I could say something similar for del Potro. He seems to be the one guy whom all tennis fans—Federer-ites, Nadalians, Djokovichers, you name it—can rally around. Everyone loves the big Argie, from Hall-of-Famers to hackers. I talked to Andre Agassi in New York today and tried to get him to speak a little about the 2011 season so far, and on Djokovic and Federer. He spent most of his answer saying how happy he was to see del Potro in action again. In the seven minutes since I started writing this post, a tennis buddy of mine emailed to ask: “Is del Potro back?”

“Yes, sort of,” was my answer. That may seem a little hesitant for a guy who just won his first tournament after a layoff of nearly a year, but del Potro's win over Janko Tipsarevic in Del Ray yesterday was not vintage stuff. He came into the match saying he was tired, and then he got much more tired very quickly in the afternoon Florida heat. Over the first five games, four of which he lost, del Potro appeared to play exactly one point at top speed. Otherwise, he was late to the ball and late to set up; out of necessity, and desperation, he even began to develop a whole new shot, a stick-save backhand slice hit while he was spinning away from the net. It kept him in quite a few points.

It was a windy, ugly, schizophrenic, and all around very strange match, the equivalent of an American football game where one team—in this case, Tipsarevic—is in the red zone five times and comes away with a field goal, only to watch the other team—in this case del Potro—which has done nothing all day suddenly throw a Hail Mary at the end of the first half to score a touchdown and take the lead. “All the factors were going my way to win,” a frustrated Tisparevic said afterward. “But I really didn’t use my chances.”

It was windy, del Potro was reeling, but still Tipsarevic stuck with his usual game plan of hitting big and aiming toward the lines. He regretted it later. “I think the tactic I had was too aggressive,” he said, “probably because I was afraid that maybe If I start letting him play that he would dominate the court.” Before the match, Tennis Channel commentators Jimmy Arias and Leif Shiras said that Tipsarevic should be relaxed because he had nothing to lose playing a former U.S. Open champion. In theory, that was true. Except that (a) Tipsarevic is not what you would call a relax-er; he was on the lookout for bad calls from the start. And (b) you stop having nothing to lose the minute you get a lead. That’s when you get really nervous. And that’s when Tipsarevic started to have his troubles.

However long he’s been gone, I would have expected del Potro to be able to handle coming back from two sets of tennis the night before a little better than he did. But it’s been a long road back for the big man, and it’s a little early to get critical, especially after a win. He also seemed to be in the kind of negative mental funk that he sporadically goes into, even during big matches—he spent most of the final of the 2009 World Tour Final against Nikolay Davydenko in one. But the way he broke out of it was also characteristic. Tipsarevic, seeing that del Potro was dragging anchor, tried a drop shot. Out of nowhere, the Argentine was all over it. He got to it easily, flipped a winner up the line, and lifted his arms to rev up a startled crowd, who he had just spent half an hour lulling to sleep. That was vintage del Potro: One minute he’s got his chin on his chest and is ambling his way out of the match; the next he’s in full war cry.

“Janko had control in the first set,” del Potro said, “but I was focused on my serve because it was only a break. If I get a break soon, maybe I can come back to win that set, and that’s what happened.” He knows it’s one step at a time.

The best of del Potro’s game is still somewhere inside of him, waiting to break out—the skiddingly flat crosscourt forehand wasn’t in evidence yesterday, but it will be. What was in evidence, though, was the winner’s calmness that resides at the core of his otherwise highly emotional self. “It was very hot and of course I felt it,” del Potro said. “But in the final, you have to think how you can win. Even if you play bad or not, you have to win the final.”

“You have to think how you can win”: there’s a one-line tennis textbook if I’ve ever heard one.

Why do we like del Potro? I would say it’s the emotion, the genuineness, and the paradoxical, gentle-giant fragility that we see in a big man—we figure little guys can look out for themselves. There’s also that monster forehand, spectacular when it connects, and his understated but obvious passion for the game.

And now there’s something else: Del Potro is fighting back from adversity, from the same type of exasperating injury problems that so many of us weekend warriors have been through. As my tennis buddy who emailed me today said, “I’m rooting for him because I feel like I’m going through the same thing. Taking a bit of time to get back to where I was.”

My friend has been injured as well, but you can be perfectly healthy and root for someone for the same reason: A lot of us are trying to back to where we were, aren't we? It’s just that none of us got to where del Potro got—U.S. Open champion; future of the game—in the first place. We want, at the very least, to see him get a fair chance at that future. That much we can all agree on.

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