The Bigness of Delpo

by: Peter Bodo | July 10, 2013

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While just one player wins any given tournament, any number of others also end up as losers or winners by the time any event comes to a close. It was true again at Wimbledon, where Andy Murray was the towering but not sole story. A number of other male competitors (none of them from Switzerland) left London having every right to feel pretty good about themselves.

Those most prominently in that group include Jerzy Janowicz and Lukasz Kubot, Polish countrymen who made the quarterfinals but, thanks to the cruel sense of humor of the draw gods, had to meet each other there. Fernando Verdasco also had reason to celebrate. Not only did he make the quarterfinals for the first time in his career, he appeared to breaking out of a lingering slump. Who would have ever thought that at this point in the year, the only two events at which this former Top 10 pro would have made it to the final eight would be Eastbourne and Wimbledon?

In fact, the tournament didn’t really sort itself out until the fourth round, which featured more than half-a-dozen men for whom getting to that stage was nothing less than a triumph, perhaps even a career moment. But very few people short of Murray himself can claim to have had as good a tournament as Juan Martin del Potro, who lost a wonderfully played semifinal that lasted almost five hours and softened up top-seeded Novak Djokovic for the man who would become the first British champ in 77 years.

Del Potro is not likely to see it that way, though. Because while he’s just 24, del Potro been a “former” Grand Slam champion for—it truly is hard to believe—more than three and-a-half years now. His dilemma is that having a great tournament means winning the title; anything less may be nice, and it certainly can be satisfying, but that’s as far as it goes.

That would qualify del Potro as a powerful human interest story in this age dominated, surprisingly enough, by “mature” players in their mid-to-late 20s—and with some, like Roger Federer, David Ferrer, and Tommy Haas, still pretty formidable right into their 30s. But you know how it is with del Potro—has there ever been a giant so easy to overlook?

There are reasons for that. For one thing, del Potro himself is a reserved, introverted, reticent fellow. For another, he has a no-frills game, a style so meat-and-potatoes that you want ask for a bottle of ketchup and the salt shaker after watching him whack just two or three of those forehands—without following a single one to the net, where his reach, one that might rival the wingspan of a California condor, could be put to good use.

I don’t know, maybe the guy just loves to load up and bang that forehand; perhaps it just doesn’t feel right to punch away or carve under a volley, because you do it without taking a big cut. In del Potro’s mind, tennis may be all about haymakers.

That reluctance to volley even a little bit more than he deems absolutely necessary probably helps explain why del Potro seems stuck in the Top 10 mud, spinning his wheels in the second five (he’s currently No. 7) while continuing to scare the living daylights out of the other habitués of that upper echelon. Were del Potro a bit more amenable to moving forward a little more often to crush the ball before it bounces, perhaps he might have resumed his career as a Grand Slam title holder rather than a “former” major champion.

That’s one theory, and not a bad one. Another speculation is that he’s never fully regained the confidence and command he felt back in the summer of 2009, which he capped in the U.S. Open final before turning the ripe old age of 21 with an unforgettable win over a fit and game Federer, who had just won Roland Garros and Wimbledon and would go on to win the 2010 Australian Open. On the other hand, any 20-year-old Grand Slam champion (not that the “statistical sample” is reliably large) can tell you that when you win a major at that age, you usually do it in spite of rather than because of your youth. You just get lucky and hit a long stride, and are probably lucky that you have no idea what the hell is going on.

To that crowd, del Potro may seem to lack some vital spark of determination or some facet of competitive character to back up that early burst of success, the way gamers like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, or Pete Sampras did. As a result, they think, del Potro just doesn’t have the requisite confidence and, as that has become manifest, his game has lost some of its original splendor—some of its “bigness.”

It’s easy to equate shyness with timidity in someone like del Potro, although no real equivalency exists. That brings us to theory No. 3, and the one I find myself leaning toward in the wake of this Wimbledon. And that’s the idea that del Potro has had some pretty rotten luck—or at least too little good luck—and is slowly being tortured by fate. Renewed greatness is dangled before him like carrot on a stick that remains just out of reach, no matter how diligently he plods along.

In 12 Grand Slam events and the Olympic Games since del Potro won the 2009 U.S. Open, he’s lost to either Djokovic, Federer, or Rafael Nadal six times—five times in the last seven tries at such events. And that includes his semifinal clash last week with Djokovic, which made everyone’s short list for best match of the fortnight, as well as a devastating 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 semifinal loss to Federer at the 2012 London Olympics.

Although he’s truly a humble guy, del Potro said after his most recent loss to Djokovic: “I think this match is going to be memory for a few years. We play for four hours and a half on very high level. I don’t know if the rest of the players can play like us today.”

True enough. Implied in the statement is the belief that del Potro is the equal of Djokovic and his cohorts in the upper echelons of the rankings. Give a guy that kind of confidence, and someone’s going to get hurt. The evidence suggests that the Argentinian may be on the verge of another big break-out. Historically, he’s had great luck during the U.S. hard-court circuit, so the timing is better than ever for del Potro to find that last missing piece of the puzzle he put together so convincingly in the summer of 2009.

“If I still going in this way playing against Novak, Rafa, the other guys. . .” he said last week, “. . .is going to be very interesting for me. Good fight, good battles coming. I will be ready for that.”          

As far as heaving gauntlets go in tennis, that’s about as good as it gets.

But don’t get me wrong. The gentle giant isn’t turning bully. In fact, many commentators remarked upon the obvious bonhomie and sportsmanship of the del Potro-Djokovic Wimbledon semifinal. Del Potro has a knack for generating support; I suppose it’s because he seems like such a gentle giant, because he just doesn’t appear to be very aggressive, no matter how hard he belts the ball.

After the semifinal, del Potro was asked if it meant much to him to have won the hearts of the crowd. He replied with characteristic bluntness: “Yeah, but first I would like to win (matches). Then the other things come along. I just did my job. I did all my best. Of course, it’s nice when you get more fans and they like your way of play. But I lost, you know. I go home. They have the chance to go to the final.”

Well, it may not be very long before del Potro, too, has a chance to go to the final on Sunday. And it won’t be as a spectator.

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