When Juan Martin del Potro went looking for a service break in the Acapulco final on Saturday, he went straight for the jugular. Literally. After a face-to-face exchange of volleys at the net with his opponent, Kevin Anderson, Delpo hammered a backhand in the direction of Anderson’s face at close range. Anderson lunged at the last second, but the ball made it past his racquet and hit him high on the chest. Delpo raised his hand in obligatory apology, but he didn’t show much remorse. The Argentine went on to break, and eventually win his 21st career title and his first at a 500-level event since 2013.
Del Potro’s body blow was a surprise in one way; he doesn’t have a reputation as a cutthroat, by-any-means-necessary kind of guy. In another way, though, his ability to come up with the right shot for the moment made complete sense—that was what he had been doing all week. This may have been the most varied and versatile version of Delpo we’ve seen.
Yes, he rained down aces and forehand winners as expected. But Del Potro also used his backhand drop shot to excellent effect; closed when he needed to close and made the volleys he needed to make; kept his opponents off-balance with his low and slow slice crosscourt backhand, and even used it to hit winning lobs; and pushed his opponents back with his returns. That latter shot, the return, has always seemed to be the most under-used in the Del Potro arsenal. While he can obviously hit ground strokes for power, he tends to be passive on returns, and his achy left wrist hasn’t helped. But in Acapulco, Delpo found a balance between safety and depth on his return that let him start the rallies farther up in the court.
At 29, Del Potro has a new coach, Sebastian Prieto, and together, he says, they’ve devised a new tactical approach.
“My way of playing has changed, the way I view points and look for different openings, certain opportunities,” Del Potro told atpworldtour.com last week. “It’s been less than 10 tournaments that we’ve been working together, but already my ranking has climbed.”
“I come to play hardball at every event I play,” he added with uncharacteristic, but welcome, bravado.
There have been a lot of “Delpo is back!” moments since he returned to the tour after his third wrist surgery in 2016. But this felt like another. On his way to the title, he straight-setted three Top 10 opponents, Anderson, Alexander Zverev, and Dominic Thiem, and also beat David Ferrer and Mischa Zverev. That leaves Del Potro at No. 8, with an 11-3 record in 2018, and with a big opportunity at the Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami.
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and No. 7 David Goffin are all sidelined at the moment, and Thiem and Zverev, currently ranked No. 5 and 6, have at least 1,200 more points to defend through Rome than Del Potro does. After enduring a season of bad draws in 2017 as he struggled to raise his ranking—he lost to Djokovic early in Acapulco last year—Delpo showed this past week what he can do when he has a proper seeding. Could he be in the Top 5 by the time the Grand Slam season begins in late spring?
“This tournament had a high level,” Del Potro said. “That shows you the great tennis I’m playing.”
As he approaches 30, Del Potro is the tennis equivalent of a baseball pitcher who has lost some of the heat on his fastball, and has to find clever and creative ways to get batters out. Del Potro can still bring the heat, of course; if anything, since his last surgery, his forehand is more dangerously efficient than it was in his early 20s. But his two-handed backhand obviously doesn’t have the pop that it once did. By now, Del Potro has learned to make the most of what he has on that side, and learned how many different things he can do with a one-handed slice. Against Zverev, that shot, and Delpo’s ability to change the flow of the match with it, made the young German look one-dimensional by comparison.
Delpo is healthy, he has a new coach and new tactics, and with three of the Big 4 out, he has an opportunity. But does he feel the need to fill the hole at the top of the men’s game, and would he put his always-precarious health at risk to do it? Del Potro played the Australian Open for the first time since 2014, but watching him lose early, and badly, to Tomas Berdych Down Under, I wondered whether he was satisfied just to be on tour.
“It’s been a long time since I started a season so early,” Del Potro said.
Now it’s about raising my level, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s a long year and at this stage I’m putting my health before everything else. Then from there, I’ll enjoy my time on the court. I’m just happy to be playing because I was almost at the point where I wasn’t going to be able to compete.”
You can’t blame the guy for feeling that way. Still, as Del Potro’s work with his new coach shows, he’s committed to improving, and winning usually breeds a desire to do more of it. While Delpo has won a Slam, he has never won a Masters 1000, and he hasn’t been past the third round at either Indian Wells or Miami since 2013. With so many openings at those two events, and at the top of the rankings, now would seem to be the time for Del Potro to play a little hardball.
Desert Smash: A Celebration of Celebrity, Charity and Tennis Unlike Any Other
The 14th annual Desert Smash charity tennis event is Tuesday, March 6, and there are many reasons to mark your calendar. Here are just five of those reasons, including the event's host, Serena Williams.
Desert Smash is the kick off to Indian Wells, which will be broadcast on Tennis Channel over the next two weeks.
*** STREAM DESERT SMASH LIVE on TENNIS.com ***
*** WATCH LIVE on TENNIS CHANNEL ***
*** PURCHASE TICKETS AT https://desertsmash.