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Steve Flink: Del Potro will Re-emerge

10/4/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

We are approaching the end of a long and debilitating campaign for all of the leading players in the game of tennis. The four majors are in the history books. Most of the hard work for the year is over for the top competitors. They are exhausted after driving themselves to their physical and emotional limits over the past nine months. They are hoping to finish 2010 with as much success as possible. They would like to add some titles to their collections. Yet they are pacing themselves deliberately now, looking forward to a brand new season in 2011, taking stock of just how much energy they have left to carry them through the rest of 2010.

But one of the most formidable players of them all is in an entirely different place at the moment. Juan Martin Del Potro is just starting a comeback. For him, the conclusion of 2010 is an important time. Del Potro had wrist surgery in the spring—on the fourth of May, to be precise.  He was gone from the game from the moment he lost in the round of 16 at the Australian Open to Marin Cilic until he reemerged in Bangkok a week ago. Del Potro was beaten there by the wily 29-year-old Olivier Rochus. Rochus is 5’6”, a foot smaller than Del Potro. The Belgian is quick, cagey, and resourceful. He makes you play. He is completing his eleventh year as a professional tennis player, and he knows how to compete against the best players in his trade.

Rochus toppled Del Potro, but the towering Argentine did not do badly in his first match back after eight months. Rochus prevailed 7-6 (7), 6-4. Perhaps Del Potro would have succeeded in that contest had he managed to secure the tight opening set tie-break, but it was understandable that he was not able to come through on the biggest points. From every account I read, Del Potro gave a respectable account of himself, and came away encouraged that he was moving in the right direction.

Today, Del Potro was ousted in the opening round of the Japan Open in Tokyo by Feliciano Lopez, the left-hander from Spain who attacks persistently in every match. Lopez is a tough man to bring down when he is serving well. He swings his first serve wide in the Ad court with good pace and a significant amount of slice, and backs it up well on the volley. He is currently ranked No.23 in the world, and is enjoying an impressive season. Lopez took apart Del Potro by the surprising scores of 6-3, 6-0. He saved eleven of twelve break points he faced in the two sets, and that wide Ad court delivery undoubtedly was one of the keys to his triumph over Del Potro. On a fast court against an inspired adversary, Del Potro did not have the answers.

And yet, the fact remains that this was the third time in a row that Lopez has stopped Del Potro. In 2008, he was victorious over the Argentine on the hard courts of Miami, and at the end of that season the Spaniard won again in the Davis Cup Final on an indoor hard court. His game happens to match up well against Del Potro’s. Lopez knows he can’t get involved in a baseline slugfest with Del Potro. He recognizes that Del Potro is the much better man from the back of the court. The Spaniard wisely shortens the points when he meets Del Potro, looks for every opportunity to come in, and keeps the big man unsettled by taking the ball early off the forehand.

Surely, Del Potro was expecting to win at least a few matches in his first two tournament appearances these last couple of weeks, but it did not happen. He confronted an experienced and composed match player in Rochus, and a first rate opponent in Lopez, who has the game and the temperament to bother a wide range of competitors when he is playing well. He lost both contests, but that is no disgrace. Del Potro will push on from here, searching for chances to win, slowly building confidence every step of the way, looking to impose himself and his game with the unrelenting force, flamboyance and persuasiveness that once was his custom.

I believe Del Potro is headed back reasonably fast among the elite. Consider how much progress he had made before his wrist took him out of the sport for so long. In 2008, he established himself as the youngest player in the year-end top 10, concluding that season at No. 9 in the world. During that summer, he achieved a remarkable feat, winning four tournaments in a row. He took two of those titles on clay, added two more championships on the hard courts, and won 23 consecutive matches before Andy Murray upended him in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. The following year, he finished at No. 5 in the world, capturing his first major title at the U.S. Open, striking down Rafael Nadal in a straight set semifinal and overcoming Roger Federer in a stirring five set final.

Del Potro would have been a strong contender at every Grand Slam event in 2010, but his ailing right wrist took him out of circulation after his loss to Cilic at Melbourne. But I project unequivocally that he will move back into the world’s top ten by the summer of 2011, and he should finish next year at his old residence in the top five. Two other big hitters who resemble Del Potro in many ways had terrific campaigns this year. Sweden’s Robin Soderling made it to a second straight French Open final, defeating Federer for the first time in the quarterfinals of that event. Tomas Berdych got to the semifinals at Roland Garros and reached his first major final at Wimbledon.

Both Soderling and Berdych—despite a lackluster record since Wimbledon—are great players with devastatingly potent ground strokes and overwhelming first serves. But—at least as I see it—Del Potro is better than either Soderling or Berdych. His forehand is even more explosive and more reliable. His two-handed backhand is absolutely pure. And his first serve improved immensely across 2009. As long as his wrist does not act up and he competes again at full capacity, Del Potro will revisit the upper reaches of tennis for a long time. His calm demeanor, explosive shot making, insatiable will to win, and high ambitions will take Del Potro to the lofty territory where he belongs.

Del Potro’s ranking has dropped to No. 36 in the world this week. He could well end the year much lower because he was runner-up at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London last November. Only the top eight players in the world qualify for London, and Del Potro is a long way from that level at the moment.  But—as long as he stays healthy—Del Potro will pick up considerable steam in the early stages of 2011. He will reacquaint himself with the ways of winning. He should reestablish himself as one of the game’s great players.  He could win a Grand Slam event somewhere along the way next year and a bunch more in the years ahead.

The bottom line is this: at 22, Juan Martin Del Potro is in the process of reassembling his game and restoring his self conviction. He will settle for nothing less than the best he has to offer from here on in. That is very good news for tennis.