An XL Brand of Tennis

Friday, August 01, 2014 /by
Since winning the Sydney title in January, Juan Martin del Potro has been limited to six matches battling a wrist injury. (AP Photo)
Since winning the Sydney title in January, Juan Martin del Potro has been limited to six matches battling a wrist injury. (AP Photo)

If you’re hoping to see Juan Martin del Potro cracking those blistering forehand and stinging backhands before the year is out, I’d suggest you book a plane ticket right now for Kuala Lumpur, or Tokyo.

Both of those tournaments are featuring Delpo in their promotional materials, but that implied promise and a dime might get you a string-a-ling. Still, the real news here is that barring a miracle we won’t be watching Delpo trying to drag that “old Delpo” (circa 2009) back up out of his injured body or severely tested spirit at the U.S. Open. I have that on excellent sources.

And so the saga of Juan Martin del Potro goes on, and it’s become part parable, part cautionary tale. You remember well enough how it began: del Potro blasted — literally — his way into prominence in 2008, winning four consecutive titles. Two of those events were on clay in Europe, the other two on hard courts in the U.S. Delpo amassed a winning streak of (ultimately) 23 matches that summer, the second longest ATP winning streak by a teenager in the Open era (behind Rafael Nadal). He was still just 19 years old.

But even then there were ominous signs: Who remembers that early in that breakout year, Delpo was ripped up by injuries and so distressed by his condition that he ended up changing coaches as well as his physical trainer? Seeded No. 7 at Adelaide, he was upset in the first round. He had to retire against David Ferrer in the second round of the Australian Open due to injury. He was off the tour until March, and by April he was down to No. 81.

In May of 2008, he had to quit a match against Andy Murray in the Rome Masters 1000, this time with a bad back. Delpo struggled through the next few weeks, winning but one match at each of the early summer majors. He went to Europe to play the emerging mini-clay circuit mainly because his team wanted to test his fitness.

You might say Delpo passed the physical test.

It would be one of the rare times that he would.

By the end of that year, Delpo was the youngest member of the Top 10 (No. 9) and the highest-ranking South American. The stage was set for del Potro to shock the world, or at least that portion of it that had an interest in tennis.

Two-thousand and nine was career year and a dream year. Delpo won Auckland (his first event of the year) but fell to No. 2 seed Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. He nearly ruined Federer’s golden opportunity to finally win the French Open (thanks to Robin Soderling’s stunning upset of Rafael Nadal) by stretching Federer to 6-4 in the fifth in their semifinal.

Still with ruination on his mind, del Potro put together another hard court run after Wimbledon, this one an 18-1 streak. First, he won Washington again (d. Roddick). Then Delpo came second to Andy Murray in the finals of the Canadian Masters. He followed with what remains his greatest win — a triumph over Roger Federer in the final of the U.S. Open.

If you saw that match, you’ll remember that del Potro took the game to level where even the versatile, creative Federer was bamboozled. Delpo is 6-foot-6, and on that occasion the court on Federer’s side of the net seemed to expand proportionately while his own half remained normal-sized. Hitting with great power, depth, and angle, del Potro seemed to find acres upon acres of space to either side or behind Federer. He took time away from Federer, he pushed him back and punished him when Federer refused to go.

Del Potro won it in five sets, becoming the first player to intrude upon the Grand Slam lock down Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had put on the game for 18 straight majors.

Then it all fell apart. As pundits were extolling the XL brand of tennis del Potro had been playing, his right wrist failed. He had surgery and played only three events in 2010. He made a strong comeback in 2011, winning two of three finals to earn ATP Comeback Player of the Year honors. The following year brought even greater success: Four titles in five finals, a career high 65 match wins, a bronze medal in the Olympic Games, and a return to the Top 10.

Del Potro climbed as high as No. 5 last year, winning four ATP 500 grade tournaments. But by then it also seemed clear that something was missing, or holding del Potro back from duplicating his greatest feat. At the U.S. Open in 2009, he had beaten, in order, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Marin Cilic, Rafael Nadal, and Federer. Last year, he showed that while he was still capable of beating any of the “Big Four,” beating two or more of them in succession was proving too much to ask.

But also, at times Delpo’s rehabilitated game had a studied quality. It remained explosive, but it had started to look predictable as well. A savvy strategist, coach or player, always had ideas about how to beat Delpo, none of them desperate measures of the kind that some tried in an attempt to derail Federer or Nadal. As good as he was, del Potro looked like a man in need of a big win at the end of last year, as much for his confidence as for anything else. Was he going to build on his 2009 promise, or become a giant version of David Ferrer?

Del Potro was denied the chance to get that big win early in 2014 when his wrist failed again. This time, it was his left. He retired from his first-round match in Dubai and left the tour, still ranked No. 5. In the interim, he underwent surgery again and began to tentatively poke at balls on the next to last day of May. Here’s the latest in the series of videos Delpo’s team has been posting on his progress.

So there’s no chance that del Potro will find and hit a reset button somewhere in his mind or body and reprise his run of 2009 at Flushing Meadow — at least not this year. The “XL” in Delpo’s brand of tennis doesn’t just refer to his game anymore, it also stands for the duration of his forced absence from the game: Extra Long. And still with no end, or sign of what the future might bring, in sight.

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Top Ranked Players
More Rankings