A Non-Rivalry for the Ages

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The predominant question at the end of three rounds of play at Australian Open was: Is Juan Martin del Potro becoming the Argentinean Marin Cilic, or is Cilic becoming the Croatian del Potro (minus that Grand Slam title)? Lately, both seem to be making a career out of disappointing their fans and repudiating their lofty rankings at Grand Slam events.

The second day of the third round of play certainly was different from the first, and not just because sixth-seeded Del Potro and 12th-seeded Cilic both stumbled out of the draw. At dawn yesterday, a calm had descended on Melbourne Park, thanks to a lack of headline-worthy news coming out of the previous day.

But the stillness was destined not to last. And by the end of the long day—and night—Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils moved the drama meter further than anyone previously at this event this year. They hacked away at each other for four hours and 43 minutes before Simon, improbably overcoming an attack of cramps, broke Monfils and held at love to take it, 8-6 in the fifth.

Oh, and one point in that match contained 71 hits and lasted two minutes and nine seconds:

Anyone else offering a cash reward for finding a serviceable serve-and-volley player out there?

The women cast some sparks, too. Jamie Hampton’s two herniated disks didn’t hold up long enough to pull off a spectacular upset of world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Hampton’s back began to give out late in the second set (which she would win anyway), but the pain became unbearable and it helped Azarenka save her skin, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. Sloane Stephens won the most intriguing match of the day, a clash with Laura Robson, 7-5, 6-3.

The most promising thing about Stephens at the moment is that she’s winning the matches which are a toss-up, or in which she’s the favorite. That shows a real ability to handle the kind of omnipresent pressure a top player faces on a daily basis.

For long periods in their still relatively brief (and injury-plagued) careers, del Potro and Cilic could have said the same thing. Only they haven’t been able to claim that recently, at least not at major events. Of course, it’s all relative—as Justin Gimelstob likes to say, “In tennis, you grade on a curve.”

But that doesn’t make the situation any less baffling. Cilic is presently No. 14, but he’s been ranked as high as No. 9; Del Potro is a very respectable No. 6 (down from a career high No. 4) but then he’s a Grand Slam champion (U.S. Open, 2009).

More intriguing, del Potro and Cilic seem ideally cast as rivals—were the world ready for a rivalry between very similar players, right down to personality. Their “tale of the tape” could be written in one column—why waste on two?

Both men are both 24 years old; Cilic was born a mere five days later than del Potro in September 1988. Cilic is 6’6”, 192 lbs.; del Potro is listed as having the same height, but he’s (on paper) 10 pounds lighter. Both are power players, strong off either wing but with a slightly higher degree of menace on the forehand side. They can volley. The word that comes to mind to describe their games is “impregnable,” but you know how tennis is; you can’t just play defense, you must also make shots—and the error, forgivable or otherwise, is kissing cousins with the winner.

Del Potro leads their head-to-head record by an impressive 7-2, and every one of those matches was either at a Grand Slam tournament, a Masters event, or a Davis Cup tie.

Beyond that, both men are gentle rather than threatening giants. Both appear to be introverts, at least in the eyes of the public and camp followers. Taking stock of their careers and results, I’m tempted to say the best way to describe each of them is “moody.”

At times, it seems it seems like Cilic been around forever. He first came on our radar in 2008 at Wimbledon, where he made the fourth round. He didn’t improve on that until 2009, when he made the quarters of the U.S. Open, losing to a man on the cusp of making history. . . del Potro.

Cilic hit his ranking peak not long thereafter, and improved his major record at the next Grand Slam, the 2010 Australian Open. He belted his way to the semifinals before he was stopped by Andy Murray. But in the next nine majors he struggled, losing before the fourth round on eight straight occasions, ending last September when he was once again a U.S. Open quarterfinalist (he again lost to Murray). The skid included three first-round losses and another in round two. And now, with his loss to No. 21 Andreas Seppi, it seems like Cilic is backsliding.

One big difference between the men is that del Potro has had to contend with a career-threatening wrist injury. It required surgery, and caused him to miss almost the entire year after he triumphed over Roger Federer in Flushing Meadows.

After his return as a full-time player in 2011, del Potro took giant strides back toward the Top 5. Yet he stalled when he reached that level. At his first U.S. Open after he won that title, del Potro lost in the third round to Gilles Simon. He hasn’t been able to penetrate beyond the quarterfinal stage of a Slam since then, but give credit where credit is due: His three losses were to Federer (twice) and Novak Djokovic. But his fourth-round loss to David Ferrer at Wimbledon last year (del Potro won just eight games) was borderline shocking—as was yesterday’s third-round failure against Chardy.

It’s strange, but at the end of 2009, it was very tempting to pencil in the names of del Potro and Cilic, instead of those of, say, Murray and Djokovic, as the natural heirs to the rivalry of Federer and Nadal. These days, though, it seems more like the rivalry that never happened.

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