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Steve Flink: Del Potro On Course Despite Miami Defeat

3/29/2011 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As Juan Martin Del Potro headed into a fourth round appointment that he would eventually lose against Mardy Fish at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, he had every reason to be immensely gratified with the progress he has made over the last two months. The enormously appealing 6’6” Argentine was the single most unfortunate player in the game’s upper reaches across 2010. After a stirring 2009 campaign that included an exhilarating first ever major title at the U.S. Open and a year-end ranking of No. 5 (he climbed as high as No. 4 that season), Del Potro only appeared in three tournaments last year. He lost in the fourth round of the 2010 Australian Open but did not compete again for a long while. Del Potro had wrist surgery on May 4, 2010, and when he returned in the autumn to test the competitive waters in two tournaments, he did not win a match. At the outset of 2011, the pattern was much the same. Del Potro did make it to the second round of Sydney and the Australian Open, but did not look anything like the player he had once been.

At the time, Del Potro seemed to be bracing himself for a long, arduous, hard road back to the top of his profession. He spoke of soreness in his wrist. He downplayed his chances to start achieving on a significant scale anytime soon. He—and a large legion of his boosters—seemed to think that it would be quite some time before the big man could begin playing the game on his terms, with his old overwhelming pace and authority, with the sweet timing he used to exhibit so freely, with the self belief and understated swagger that had become his trademark.

But once Del Potro seemed to find his footing and reacquaint himself with the art of match play, everything fell back into place with surprising swiftness. Del Potro had a nice run in San Jose, going to the semifinals before losing to Fernando Verdasco. On he went the next week to Memphis, and Del Potro made it to the penultimate round again. It took an in form Andy Roddick to remove him from that tournament. Competing for the third week in a row, Del Potro was not to be stopped in Delray Beach, Florida. On the hard courts there, he knocked out Fish in the semifinals and then defeated Janko Tipsarevic for the crown. Del Potro was deeply fatigued and perhaps worn out by so many matches in such a short span when he took on Tipsarevic, but he still found a way to prevail and win his first tournament since that momentous 2009 U.S. Open, when he upended Roger Federer in a five set final.

Yet Del Potro did not get carried away after his Delray Beach triumph. He got right back to work, and had a terrific run to the semifinals at Indian Wells. He lost to Rafael Nadal, but not before building a 4-1 opening set lead. Nadal eventually got the win 6-4, 6-4, but the Spaniard had to elevate his game considerably and needed to perform remarkably well to move past Del Potro. That showing at Indian Wells enabled Del Potro to move back to No. 51 in the world, a status he did not expect to achieve until much later in the year. This week in Miami, Del Potro has done some more admirable work. Facing the always tricky Philipp Kohlschreiber—a player he had beaten in a pair of tie-breaks at Indian Wells—Del Potro had to battle gamely for over three hours. In the final set of that hard fought clash, Del Potro was ahead 4-2 before he lost three consecutive games. But from 4-5 in that third set, Del Potro rallied for an impressive 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 victory. In his next match, he took apart No. 4 seed Robin Soderling 6-3, 6-2. Del Potro did not face a break point in that contest. It was his best serving performance since he made his comeback. Del Potro won 22 of 25 first serve points, and 14 of 20 points on his second serve. More than that, he was an unshakable force from the backcourt. Del Potro demoralized an out of sorts Soderling with his capacity to not only take control of rallies with his breathtaking power, but to thwart the Swede by countering Soderling’s most penetrating shots by sending them back with remarkable depth down the middle of the court, inviting his opponent to fall into clusters of mistakes.

At the end of the first set of that victory, Del Potro was magnificent. Serving for the set at 5-3, up set point, the Argentine was on the dead run when he went for a thundering forehand down the line. From well outside the alley, he hit a clean winner into the corner. That was reminiscent of his 2009 U.S. Open final with Federer, on that memorable day when Del Potro prevented the Swiss from collecting a sixth straight title. Time and again that afternoon and early evening, Del Potro walloped running forehand winners that left Federer stranded. In any case, Del Potro opened up a 3-1 second set lead against Soderling in Miami, and never looked back. It was an important victory over a formidable rival. Del Potro seemed almost entirely like his old self.

In his latest match against Fish, Del Potro came up narrowly short. It was a first rate match across the board, but the slow hard court conditions were better suited to the American. Del Potro was unleashing some stupendously potent ground strokes off both sides, but Fish’s defense and all court craft carried him past the Argentine in a pair of intriguing sets. In the first set, Del Potro saved a break point at 3-4 with a neatly produced forehand volley winner down the line. At 4-4, Fish struggled inordinately on serve. Until that juncture, Fish had made good on 15 of 21 first serves, but in the crucial ninth game he connected with only 7 of 18 first deliveries. Del Potro had five break points. But he could not convert despite some good openings. Fish was unwavering, and held on for 5-4.

Now it was Del Potro’s turn to feel the pressure. Serving at 4-5, he fell behind triple set point at 0-40 but Fish let him off the hook by squandering two of the set points with unprovoked errors. Fish garnered a fourth set point, but Del Potro wiped that one away with a deep backhand down the line forcing a running forehand mistake. Del Potro made his way back to 5-5, but the imperturbable Fish was not thrown off stride. At 5-5, he did not miss a first serve, holding at love with a kick serve ace wide in the Ad court. Serving at 5-6, Del Potro saved a fifth set point at 15-40 with a devastatingly potent crosscourt forehand, but the Argentine could not escape at 30-40 when Fish had his sixth opportunity to seal the set. Del Potro was in control of the rally but Fish tenaciously stood his ground, and then the American was the beneficiary of a backhand winner that dribbled off the net cord and fell over.

Del Potro had worked hard to salvage the first set, but to no avail. He began over-hitting flagrantly off the forehand as Fish frustrated him time and again with top of the line defense. Fish knew he could not win an outright slugfest with Del Potro, but he also recognized that prolonging the rallies was often his best strategic play. Fish moved ahead 3-1, 40-30 in the second set, only to miss a difficult running forehand down the line. Soon Del Potro broke back, and he seemed to have the upper hand for a while. At 3-3, Fish was down 15-30, but he served his way thoughtfully out of that corner to reach 4-3. Del Potro made it to 4-4 in a hurry, holding at love with an ace. Once again, Fish drifted into danger. At 4-4, he was behind 0-30. But Fish won two of the next three points with well placed side slice serves in the deuce court, and he held on at 30 with a service winner wide in the Ad court. The American was simply not going to surrender.

Yet neither was Del Potro. The Argentine held at 15 for 5-5, and had Fish down 15-30 in the eleventh game, but Fish swept three points in a row for the hold, taking two of those points with an ace and a service winner. Fish moved to 6-5 but Del Potro answered the call and held for 6-6. Fish raced to a 5-0 lead in the tie-break. He began with an unstoppable first serve, then Del Potro double faulted and missed a routine inside-out forehand. Now serving at 3-0, Fish released an ace and then Del Potro mishandled another forehand. But it was not over. Del Potro took the next three points to make it 5-3 for the American, and then Fish went to 6-3 with a forehand inside-in winner. But Fish was cramping in both legs. Del Potro saved two match points on his own serve to close the gap to 6-5, but Fish managed to send an effective first serve into the body, and Del Potro drove a forehand return long. The better man had won on the day and Fish was utterly deserving of his 7-5, 7-6 (5) triumph, although he would almost surely have lost if the contest had gone to a third set.

Del Potro is clearly on the right track. His loss to Fish will not halt the momentum he has built up all season. Del Potro will still be somewhere around No. 45 in the world next week, and then will make his presence known on the clay court circuit. He was a semifinalist at the 2009 French Open and had Federer down two sets to one before losing that encounter. I fully expect Del Potro to fare well on the clay this year, and he could do some good things on the grass at Wimbledon as well. But his finest tennis of the year will undoubtedly be played across the summer on the hard courts. He will be a genuine threat at the U.S. Open, and I expect to see him around on the final weekend in New York. Del Potro will be among the top ten in the world by then, and the feeling grows that he will finish 2011 as the No. 4 ranked player in the world. I don’t make that projection lightly. I simply believe that Del Potro is a great player with the heart and mind of a champion.

Juan Martin Del Potro suffered only a minor setback when he lost to a superb Mardy Fish in the round of 16 in Miami. But I can say unequivocally that Del Potro will be back among the elite over the summer.

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