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Steve Flink: Del Potro Keeps Climbing

8/10/2008 1:57:00 PM

by Steve Flink

While the rest of the world's top ten men were competing far away in Beijing at the Olympic Games, Andy Roddick was testing himself last week at the hard court tournament in Los Angeles. Roddick understandably believed he could not afford to make the long journey to China. The U.S. Open is his top priority. He won his one and only Grand Slam championship at the Open in 2003, and the prideful American was not willing to go so far in pursuit of a gold medal when it might well have cost him his chance to rule once more at his country's major. He made a tough yet fully justifiable decision to stay away from China.

All told, Roddick got some valuable U.S. Open preparation out in Los Angeles, sweeping into the final without the loss of a set. To be sure, he had a good week after a difficult stretch. But, when all was said and done, the man of the hour in Los Angeles was clearly not Roddick; it was none other than the rapidly ascendant Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro captured his third consecutive title of a glorious summer, backing up his clay court triumphs in Stuttgart and Kitzbuhel with a spirited run in California. He crushed Mardy Fish at the cost of only three games in the semifinals, and then took apart Roddick with remarkable poise and discipline, halting the American 6-1, 7-6 (2) to record the biggest win of his career.

To be sure, Roddick was not terribly sharp. He took an injury timeout at 4-1 down in the first set to seek the help of a trainer for an ailing lower back. His vulnerability was unmistakably apparent. But, even if Roddick had been in peak form, he would have been hard pressed to find a way to halt the surging Del Potro on this occasion. The 6'6" Argentine completely outplayed Roddick in the opening set. Roddick had not been broken in his three previous matches during the tournament, but Del Potro was reading his adversary's serve beautifully. He broke three times, and pushed Roddick around regularly in the baseline exchanges. Roddick had no answer to the power and precision of the Del Potro ground game.

The 19-year-old was patient and purposeful from the back of the court, and he methodically controlled the tempo of play, keeping Roddick pinned dangerously far behind the baseline, opening up the court skillfully, probing until the American inevitably made another pressure induced mistake. In the second set, Roddick mixed up his serve much more intelligently, but Del Potro, despite a few signs of nerves and slower movement, refused to buckle. The set went with serve all the way to the tie-break. Roddick hit one of his rare aces--- his fourth and final untouchable delivery of the contest--- to lead 2-1. He never won another point. Del Potro collected six points in a row to finish a well crafted piece of business, cutting down one of the game's most accomplished tie-break competitors.

Del Potro has now found a deserved place for himself among the top twenty players in the world. He has moved up to No. 19 this week. He belongs in that territory, and even higher. Commentator Darren Cahill of ESPN believes Del Potro will surely be a top ten player in the near future, and I am absolutely in accord. I expect to see him in that top ten by the early stages of next year, and perhaps sooner. He may have some work left to do to build up his stamina. Moreover, he is awkward up at the net, uncomfortable on the low volley, often confused about whether to go crosscourt or down the line when he is in the forecourt. Because he is such a towering figure, he has the advantage of seemingly serving out of a tree, but even so that is an aspect of his game that can definitely improve.

And yet, Del Potro will be one of the most daunting seeded players outside of the top ten at the U.S. Open. He is awfully imposing. His two-handed backhand is solid and flexible, and his forehand is a substantial weapon. And for a big man, he can cover the court with surprising grace. As we swiftly approach the U.S. Open, Del Potro is one of those players who must be watched closely. He is not ready to win a Grand Slam event, but he could cause some trouble. Of this much I am certain: the players and the media will be following his every move in New York, knowing full well that Del Potro has more than earned his status as a top twenty player.

I, for one, can't wait to see him play in the last Grand Slam event of the 2008 season.

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