The blue back wall was fast approaching, but Juan Martin del Potro was too busy tracking the fuzzy yellow ball to notice. Racing with the zeal of a man planning to leap the wall, del Potro's back was to the net when he caught up to the ball and lifted a between-the-legs lob that landed inside the sideline in a bit of improvised magic that brought a roar from the crowd.
Del Potro played over Nikolay Davydenko's head in his first service game and blurred shots out of the Russian's reach in his last to post an entertaining, 7-5, 7-5 victory today in Cincinnati.
These two squared off in the 2009 ATP World Tour finals title match—with Davydenko sweeping del Potro—and both men hit the high notes at times today. Though the 5'10" Russian gives up about eight inches and 60 pounds to the 6'6" Argentine, he suffers no shortage of daring when they play.
It takes the timing of a trapeze artist to straddle the baseline and try to take del Potro's flat blasts on the rise, but Davydenko did it beautifully for stretches of the opening set. Del Potro began to strike with greater depth, ratcheting up the degree of difficulty for his opponent, who scattered three errors to face double break point. Net play is not exactly Davydenko's forte—he's one of the few top players who volleys with a two-handed backhand—and when he nudged a forehand drop volley into the tape, del Potro had the break and a 5-4 lead.
But working over the big man's backhand, Davydenko charged suddenly, coaxing a backhand into net for break point before spinning a cross-court backhand winner to break back for 5-5.
Given the substantial disparity in size and strength, you can understand why Davydenko felt the need to red-line his game: He hit more than twice as many winners (31 to 13) and nearly twice as many errors (23 to 12). But he telegraphed the drop shot too often and paid the price, as del Potro ran down a dropped and tapped a forehand to score a second straight break for 6-5. This time, he made the break stand, snatching a hard-fought first set in 55 minutes.
The two exchanged breaks to open the second set before del Potro began to crack the ball with more ambition, reeling off nine straight points for a 4-2 lead. The 2009 U.S. Open champion seemed in command at 5-3 with double match point on Davdyenko's serve, but the former world No. 3 wasn't done. A service winner followed by a crafty drop-volley winner erased both match points as a re-charged Davydenko, fresh off the Rogers Cup quarterfinals, went on an eight-point spree, breaking at love to level at 5-all.
Del Potro's power and his ability to crack that lethal, flat forehand with such control are obvious assets, but his ability to turn it on and downshift from looking disengaged to playing dynamic tennis is unsettling. A heavy forehand forced Davydenko to misfire from his back foot as Del Potro earned his fifth break for 6-5. He closed out the match in style, slamming his fourth ace to wrap up a one-hour-and-42-minute win.
Next up for the No. 7 seed is Spanish left-hander Feliciano Lopez, who has split six career meeting with Del Potro—including an upset of the Argentine on home soil in Spain's 2008 Davis Cup championship victory.