Sometimes stories twist in the most unexpected ways. Suffering from pain in his left wrist, Juan Martin del Potro has been forced in Indian Wells to resort largely to a slice backhand. One would predict consequently poor results — I once heard a commentator bafflingly yet aptly describe del Potro’s slice as ‘cheesy’ — yet he used it to outfox the great bamboozler, Andy Murray, in the quarters before it played a crucial role in handing Novak Djokovic his first defeat of 2013, coming back from a 0-3 deficit in the third set to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Meetings between these two have generally been decided by Djokovic’s effectiveness in the area in which del Potro is most conspicuously lacking, the backhand down the line. Not only was that shot largely missing in action today for Djokovic but he missed more than usual off that wing, appearing to struggle with generating accurate pace as del Potro floated back slice after slice. Backing off from attacking on that side meant that del Potro had more time to run round and set up his forehand, which was at its credulity-defying best in the latter stages of the match.
Both men struggled on serve in the early exchanges, but it was Djokovic who came up with the first hold to love then earned three break points with del Potro serving at 3-4. The Argentine saved them by the skin of his teeth, but Djokovic was working him around the court more often than not and at 4-5, he consistently pegged del Potro back into his forehand corner, then moved forward to attack the open court. Del Potro staved off two more break points before shanking a forehand well long to give up the set. Djokovic, however, opened the second with a careless service game that saw him broken and while del Potro failed to consolidate, he roared back strongly to break again with a startling off-backhand winner into the open court. A double break was as spectacularly taken — and quickly surrendered — but del Potro was consistently and successfully targeting Djokovic’s forehand and took the set with a full-throated roar.
It was del Potro’s turn to wobble and his opponent’s turn to regroup after Djokovic succeeded in drawing del Potro into consecutive cat-and-mouse exchanges at the net which his superior reflex volleys and transitional movement successfully negotiated for a break and a 3-0 lead. The Serb’s post-match press conference mentioned poor concentration and there was no stronger example than the following game, in which Djokovic played himself into a 0-30 lead with an unforced error and a double fault before allowing del Potro to send him scampering behind the baseline, giving up the break as a defensive lob drifted long.
It was the second of four straight games del Potro would win and while Djokovic momentarily stopped the rot, saving a break point at 3-3, the Argentine was flying around the court by this point without a hint of holding back on his groundstrokes. Turning surprisingly strong defense into attack in a most Djokovic-like fashion, del Potro broke to serve for the match and even a poor drop-shot attempt into the net and a time violation warning on match point could not do more than slow him down as he slammed down his fourth ace to move into just his second Masters’ series final.