Del Potro's backhand weakness may have made his game stronger

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Juan Martin del Potro was utterly brilliant in his 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-2 win over Steve Johnson. (Anita Aguilar/

NEW YORK—If you’re unfortunate enough to lose one of your senses, the others will try to compensate by becoming more acute. Can the same thing happen to a tennis player who loses one of his shots?

That seems to be the case with Juan Martin del Potro this year. When he returned from surgery on his left wrist this March, after spending the better part of two seasons away, it was obvious that his two-handed backhand was either no longer what it once was, or a long-term work in progress. No longer able to drive through the ball the way he once had, he was left to slice or block it back, run around it whenever possible or hope his opponents couldn’t find it.

On the plus side, it was also apparent that Delpo was better at hiding his backhand now, and that his serve and forehand could pick up the slack. His low, slow slice actually gave him more time to set up for a forehand and maneuver his opponents out of position. Now his two big weapons have to be more  powerful and accurate than ever; quite often, especially at the Olympics in Rio last month, they have been.

And they were again on Thursday night in Delpo’s convincing 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-2 win over Steve Johnson in Ashe Stadium. At this point in the Argentine’s career, his game bears more than a passing resemblance to the American’s. Like Delpo, Johnson mostly slices his backhand and looks for any opportunity to hit his forehand. He just doesn’t hit his forehand, or his serve, as lethally as Del Potro does.

Johnson pushed Delpo for two sets. In the first-set tiebreaker he came back from 1-5 down, only to miss what would have been a forehand winner by an inch at 5-6. In the second set, Johnson seemed ready to level things when he went up an early break on a brilliant running forehand pass. But Delpo answered by raising his level of play to a place where Johnson couldn’t go, and keeping it there for the rest of the match. Del Potro finished with 15 aces and 33 winners, won 85 percent of his first-serve points and was broken just once.

On paper, Johnson and Del Potro’s games seemed like an even, or close to even, match. In reality, the bigger-hitting Del Potro was able to exploit Johnson’s slice much more effectively than vice versa. Once Johnson was trapped in his backhand corner, he couldn’t find a way out. And when Delpo needed a first serve, he had it.

Before the tournament, Johnson was concerned that if Del Potro was given a wild card by the USTA, he might end up beating a top U.S. player. That’s exactly what happened. It’s a bummer for Johnson, who was gracious in defeat, and a blow to the U.S. presence in the men’s draw. But the thousands of fans in Ashe Stadium who cheered Del Potro’s return to that court after three years away—as well as the millions of fans who cheered on TV—probably had a different reaction: Why, they might have asked, would anyone not want to see Juan Martin del Potro play tennis? If he keeps playing it like this, we might see him do it all the way until next weekend.

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