Mr. Delpo Risin’

by: Peter Bodo | March 20, 2013

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Photograph by Anita Aguilar

It isn’t easy to overlook Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6” “Tower of Tandil.” But he, or at any rate the work he did last week in Indian Wells, was easily lost in the shuffle of Rafael Nadal’s spectacular, surprisingly quick resurgence.

So let me remind you: Starting in the quarterfinals and in sequence, del Potro bamboozled Andy Murray, hog-tied Novak Djokovic, then led Nadal by a set and a break in the final. But at that point it was del Potro, and not Nadal, who went weak in the knees. Taking advantage of some poor del Potro decisions, and perhaps some choking, Nadal mounted a furious fightback.

So once again, one of the subplots at a big event was that del Potro continues to have trouble recapturing the form and confidence he had before he was laid low by a significant wrist injury. In some ways, del Potro is the anti-Nadal—the guy who just can’t find the groove he once had. It’s gotten to the point where we’ve had to ask, “Was it just a fluke that del Potro busted out and belted Roger Federer off the court to win the 2009 U.S. Open—all before his 21st birthday?”

Most pundits and camp followers would answer “no.” Del Potro remains the only man in the Top 10 outside the Big Four who has won a Grand Slam singles title, he has a game suited to the demands of this era, he’s diligent, and also is a mere youth at age 24.

On the other hand. . .  we’ve had one-Slam wonders before, some of whom couldn’t hold a candle to del Potro when it comes to consistent success. After all, the Argentine has become very comfortably re-entrenched in the Top 10 (he’s presently No. 7). And while it’s undeniable that the Big Four have powerfully suppressed not just del Potro, but David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the reality is that Delpo is the only man among them who hasn’t won a Masters title.

That could change next week in Miami, where del Potro is seeded fifth and assured, like everyone else, that neither Federer nor Nadal will barge in to provide him with a reality check. The time seems right for del Potro in a number of ways, raising the question: Is Mr. Delpo Risin’?

Watching del Potro since his return and re-adjustment to the demands of the tour has been a baffling experience. At times, it’s looked like the game has passed him by—a preposterous notion, given his age and the fact that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with that game on that sultry night in New York, when he drove Federer back and off the court.

But at other times, it’s seemed that del Potro has lacked some critical essence of energy—or is it inspiration? Has there ever been a power-reliant, out-sized, physical player whose game has appeared at times so unimaginative, and sometimes lacking volatility?

The match that summed up del Potro’s struggles for me was his loss to Ferrer at Wimbledon last year. It was a depressingly routine affair, won by Ferrer, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Ferrer leads their head-to-head, 6-2, and perhaps there are some lessons about del Potro to be mined from that statistic. After all, the only two wins on del Potro’s side of the ledger were both recorded during the run-up to his breakout 2009 season. Both were on hard courts, and del Potro won both matches without the loss of a set. One of those matches was a fourth-rounder in Miami that ended 6-3, 6-2. Where has that del Potro gone?

Given the way Ferrer handles all but the most dangerous of ball strikers, his recent mastery of del Potro suggests that the big man is simply less dangerous than before. I think that’s true, but it isn’t because there’s some fatal flaw or sudden shortcoming in del Potro’s basic game and/or strategy. To me, his greatest failings have been in the area of execution, and in a most basic way. He’s continued to hit the ball hard, especially on that forehand side. But he hasn’t, until lately, been hitting it deep enough, or close enough to the lines.

Well, that just underscores an easily forgotten point. The success or failure of any strategy and/or tactic is not only predicated but utterly dependent on an acceptable degree of execution. Execute well and then you can start to ask yourself: Down the line or cross-court? Slice or topspin? Kicker or slider? Execute poorly, or in the muted way that often seemed to characterize del Potro in recent times, and your tactics and strategy will be doomed.

Once upon a time, del Potro knew how to make the court on the other side of the net look hopelessly big—that was my main impression during his landmark win over Federer—impossible to adequately patrol and cover. But during his comeback, it’s looked more like del Potro compressed his game to make it fit the conventional dimensions of the court, much to his detriment. He didn’t exactly start playing small, he was just playing smaller. Enough so that a quality retriever like Ferrer can consistently outfox, outrun, and frustrate him.

There have been signs that this is changing. At last year’s Olympic Games at Wimbledon, del Potro forced Federer to go way into overtime—19-17 in the third and decisive set—before he capitulated in the semis. He then took the bronze medal from Djokovic. Later, he was beaten in the late stages of Cincinnati and at the U.S. Open by Djokovic—no shame in that. And still later, in Federer’s home town of Basel and on a fast indoor court that the Swiss icon loves, del Potro beat him for the title. He recorded another win over Federer in the round-robin portion of the World Tour Finals, but he lost in the semifinals to Djokovic.

Upset by the hot hand of Jeremy Chardy at the Australian Open, del Potro got off to a shaky start this year, but he’s made great progress. He won Rotterdam and made the semis in Dubai (where he lost to Djokovic) before finally getting a little payback against the world No. 1 at Indian Wells.

Granted, that semifinal was an odd match; del Potro isn’t likely to win many big finals leaning on the slice backhand as heavily as he did against Djokovic. But after a slow start, del Potro looked good against Nadal. He moved well, and his forehand looked more effective than it has for some time. His energy level looked high. He had the match in the palm of his hand, but he dropped it.

Del Potro will get another good look at a Masters title in the coming days. His legs may feel a little heavy after all the tennis he played last week, but there’s no reason he can’t finally win one of these elite tournaments. Interestingly, the major obstacle in del Potro’s quarter appears to be third-seeded Ferrer. Somehow, it seems a fitting challenge at this stage of del Potro’s development.

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