With a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov, Juan Martin del Potro is the first man into the semifinals of Madrid.
I thought Dolopolov might pull off the upset today, as his game seems ideally poised to take advantage of the quick, slippery blue clay. He has a super-aggressive style and a general knack for the unexpected, which could have rendered another great result (he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga yesterday) on courts where we have seen so many players struggle to change direction. But the match played out like the previous meetings between the two: Dolgopolov could not find the balance between patience and attack, and although only two months separate them in age, del Potro looked like a veteran who knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish—and knew, moreover, that it was well within his powers.
This was del Potro’s 10th consecutive victory on clay after claiming the Estoril title, and he was confident from the start, breaking Dolgopolov for a 3-1 lead after a sweet backhand approach and testing volley. Part of del Potro’s greatness lies in his ability to go corner to corner without needing to push too close to the lines, relying on consistent depth to work his opponent off-balance, and although he occasionally got that calculation wrong today—he was broken back for 3-4 in the first set, largely due to playing it too safe when handed a short mid-court ball—it proved a more winning formula than Dolgopolov’s insistence on going after the first-strike ball. While Dolgopolov charged inside the court looking for a clean winner on second serves, del Potro was content to hang back behind the baseline, giving himself time to make the deep return that more often than not drew an error. It didn’t help Dolgopolov’s cause that, serving at 31 percent for the match, he gave del Potro plenty of opportunities to perfect that tactic.
The second set mirrored the first, with Dolgopolov serving at 2-2 when a double fault and wild forehand gave up 0-30. Del Potro struck, hitting two exceptional cross-court returns to break to love. From there, it was a simple matter of continuing to hold serve—it helped that del Potro was serving at a respectable 61 percent and threw in 10 aces for the match—and in less than an hour and a half, del Potro had booked a return to the Madrid semis, where he lost to Roger Federer in 2009.
If I could, I’d place a moratorium on conversations about del Potro that include the word ‘back’, as in ‘back to his best’, or ‘back to 2009 form’. It would be impossible for a changed player to recapture the form of one season, and even if he did, it would be a regression in the midst of a tour that’s moved on. I’m more interested in finding out exactly what the 2012 del Potro can do. Right now, the question is whether he can reach his first Madrid final. He’ll face Tomas Berdych or Fernando Verdasco tomorrow in his quest to do just that.