Juan Martin del Potro is a bona fide title contender at the US Open:
NEW YORK—Borna Coric is 21 years old, ranked a career-high No. 20 and posted deep runs at Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year. Juan Martin del Potro will turn 30 later this month and is a former US Open champion. Which player needs a major breakthrough most?
The conventional answer would be Coric, given his age and steady progression up the ATP rankings. One of the game’s most talented young players, his season includes a title on grass in Halle (defeating Roger Federer in his last match) and a semifinal run at Indian Wells (losing to Federer in his last match). After dropping just one set in his first three matches at Flushing Meadows, the stage was set—under the lights, in Arthur Ashe Stadium—for Coric to knock off an established star and reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
But the correct answer is del Potro, for a variety of reasons. Since returning to the tour full time after numerous wrist surgeries, del Potro has done everything short of recapturing Grand Slam glory. At the Rio Olympics two summers ago, del Potro beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to a silver medal. Andy Murray was the only reason del Potro didn’t take gold, so what did the Argentine do the next time they collided in international competition? He beat Murray in five sets, in Scotland, to send his country into the Davis Cup final. There, del Potro clinched Argentina's first Davis Cup with a comeback victory from two sets down over Marin Cilic, in Croatia.
Last year, del Potro reached the US Open semifinals, beating Federer along the way. This year, he beat Federer to win Indian Wells, and then reached the French Open semifinals a few months later. Everyone knows that del Potro is the greatest threat to yet another Grand Slam conquest by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic—the trinity that has combined to win the last seven major title. It’s just a matter of del Potro breaking through...again.
Like Coric, del Potro is at a career-high ranking (No. 3). It was the only similarity between the two on Sunday night, unless you want to say that both players sweated profusely in the humid Queens air. After Coric recovered from a break down in the first set to level the score at 4-all, it was all del Potro the rest of the way, thanks to the shots that have breathed new life into his career, one that appeared permanently weakened because of wrist problems.
Del Potro’s serve earned him dozens of free points against Coric. He put 80 percent of his first serves in, and proceeded to win 80 percent of those points. His forehand was the point-ending trump card he can always play. His backhand was solid—not a liability by any means, even with two hands.
And his slice backhand? Considering the depth it gets and del Potro’s increased confidence in the shot—he relied on it heavily after first returning from surgery—it’s a veritable weapon, and another way the 6’6” fan favorite can beat his often helpless opponents.
"I'm be available to choose between slices or two-handed backhands, which is a good combination for my new style of game," said del Potro. "In this tournament particularly, I'm playing free of pain, which is pretty good for me.
"As I did today, I mix it up a lot of backhands, slices and dropshots. I think it's the good part of my game when I feel 100 percent with my wrist."
Coric needed all the help he could get on this evening, but it wouldn’t come from the New York crowd, which has adored del Potro ever since his first breakthrough, at the 2009 tournament. Add in some superfans from Tandil, del Potro's hometown, and Coric was facing opponents all around him.
"They don't have nothing to do," a smiling del Potro said of his vocal supporters. "They just practice the songs."
Coric certainly wouldn’t get help from del Potro, who fired 33 winners and converted five of six break-point chances (Coric broke del Potro’s serve just once). He wouldn’t even get it from himself. The amount of sweat dripping from Coric’s soaked clothing distracted him to the point where he asked the chair umpire to get more ballpersons to towel off the baseline in between points. The umpire said no; he didn’t help Coric either.
Del Potro, meanwhile, only got stronger as Coric’s hope of victory waned. His 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 victory means he’s into the quarterfinals without the loss of a set—it's the first time he’s done that since 2013, when he reached the Wimbledon semis. An intriguing quarterfinal with John Isner looms—it’s a match-up between the Indian Wells and Miami champions, at the biggest hard-court tournament in the United States.
"I think to win in straight sets every match is important for the body, for the legs, for the physical conditions," said del Potro. "But in the end every match is a new battle, and you must be 100 percent for that moment. It doesn't matter if I win in three sets or five sets, in the next round will be a new match.
"John has a very good shape to play that match. It will be a really tough one."
An Isner win would put him in the semifinals of the US Open for the first time—it would be a breakthrough. Del Potro has a ways to go for his second breakthrough—three more wins, to be precise. But the fact that we’re even talking about it now means that we know he’s capable of it.
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