Del Potro fittingly toured his home town, Tandil, Argentina, atop a fire engine; as if to send a danger siren to all the top rung tennis players of the planet, having stunned World No 1 Roger Federer in the US Open final. An estimated 40,000 people of this relatively unknown town dared the cold weather and gathered on the streets to greet the new champion of US Open. Not in every tournament, one can expect a 20 year old under-dog to upset both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and that too within the gap of thirty hours; but in US Open 2009, it happened. In the semifinal, Juan Martin Del Potro handed Nadal his worst defeat in a Grand Slam event, allowing him to win only 6 games in all. And the very next day he bounced back against the world No.1 Federer when he was a set down and was almost losing the second set. He went on to win the four hour long epic match and the tournament 4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. Only Nadal has beaten Federer before in a Grand Slam final. His feat doesn’t stop here. He is the only person to beat both giants, Nadal and Federer, in the same Grand Slam Tournament. He is also the only person to beat Nadal three times in the same year (2009). Looks like Federer will have more competition for the No.1 spot now.
Del Potro hails from a small town called Tandil, a province of Buenos Aires, Argentina with a population of a mere 150000. Del Potro was actually trained in football in his earlier days in Club Independiente, a club which has produced pros in many sports. Delpo, as he is sometimes affectionately called by his friends, took the tennis racket at the age of seven just as a distraction from his tiring football schedule. Then there was no looking back. He soon found himself playing in the junior level of international tennis circuit. What demarcated Delpo from others was his focus on the game. Coaches in Club Independiente believe that he would have become a Pele or a Maradona had he continued practicing football. Even now, when he comes to his hometown, he sneaks out a little time to catch a football game with his old friends at the club. His ascent to the top 10 of ATP ranking was a fairy tale largely missed out by the media because of their obsession with another young prospective Grand Slam Champion, Andy Murray. Delpo glided into top 10 in 2008, winning four masters titles, though he didn’t make much of a mark in the grand slams. At 18, He was the youngest player in the top 10. En-route he beat a few top players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nikolai Davydenko and Tomas Berdych. But the year 2009 saw Delpo maturing into a grittier warrior as he made his presence felt in all majors. He reached the quarter finals of Australian Open, in which he was beaten by Federer in straight sets. This turned out to be the worst loss for Delpo in his career, as he was allowed only to win 3 games in all of the three sets. But in French open, Delpo proved his salt by dragging Federer into a five set match in the semi-finals. Though the Swiss master prevailed in the end, Delpo made a sound statement to the tennis fraternity. He was ousted in the second round of Wimbledon by the unseeded former world no 1 Lleyton Hewitt, but he compensated for the loss and gave his fairy tale a perfect start with the US open win.
Del Potro’s strengths come from his gangly figure of 6 foot 6 inch. Contrary to the myth that players too tall don’t move well, he proved to be a graceful mover in the court. He used his long legs to cover the court effectively and rule the baseline. His height gave him the impetus for his huge first serve, which even top ranked players have failed to counter effectively. His forehand rips across the air with a rocket like speed. Due to his height, he is able to keep his forehand shots low which sometimes forces the opponent’s return to the net. The angle he can generate with his forehand has stunned both Nadal and Federer. Particularly the forehand cross-court spin (left to right cross-court) winner blazed past an exhausted Nadal for umpteen times in the semifinal. The same shot won Delpo a crucial set point against Federer in the fourth set tie breaker in the final. Though his backhand is not a killer like his forehand, it complements his game very well and doesn’t spoil his rhythm. Delpo always likes to play on the offensive. Rarely do we see him play like the artistic Federer who waits for the opportune moment to go for the kill. Delpo is more likely to go after the opponent with his whizzing past forehand winners. He probably stands second among contemporaries, only after Federer, when it comes to bullying the opponent from the baseline. Delpo shares a rare characteristic with Nadal. He is not awed by the opponent, even if it is Roger Federer. He focuses on his game with a die-hard resoluteness. This was evident in both the semifinals and the finals of US open. Against Nadal, he showed urge to close the match as fast as possible. He never allowed Nadal to settle down and broke his serve six times in the match. Before the finals, Delpo had a 0-6 deficit in head to head against Federer. In the finals, against Federer, (who was in high spirits after the straight set win against Djokovic in the semifinals and especially after the famous hot-dog shot he enacted when he was two points away from winning the match) he looked very much like a rookie in the first set. Federer literally demolished him, when he sent down some awe-inspiring winners and aces to finish the first set hands down. And again Delpo proved that he has the grit to play his offensive game irrespective of the situations or the opponent. Some say, you cannot win against Federer, he has to give it away to you. This became partly true in the last two sets, as he strayed away from his rhythm, committed 11 double faults and many unforced errors. But this shouldn’t take the credit away from Delpo, who held his nerve on every crucial point and bounced on every opportunity to thrash the five time champion. Finally, as Federer himself admitted, Del Potro was the best guy in this tournament.
But, is Delpo ready for taking on the World No 1 mantle from Federer? The answer might be a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’. Yes, he is definitely a prospective replacement for Federer when he retires a couple of years from now. No, he is still not Roger. His first serve and his forehand are impeccable. But there may be some concerns with his second serve and backhand. His second serve has not been so reliable. Federer exposed it in the finals and dragged him to deuce in his serve many times. Federer has an impeccable second serve, which might not be as fast as the first one, but still they are tactically gratifying serves which don’t give away advantage to the opponent. Delpo’s backhand has not won him many points. He might want to develop variety in his backhand that will make him an all-rounder. Delpo’s offensive game might turn out to be actually a glitch in his shirt. We rarely see him playing a drop short. Not often he comes to the net for a volley. This might prove to be a dampener against crafty players like Andy Murray (against whom his head-to-head is not so good). But Del Potro seems to be aware of his short-comings. He has acknowledged this in the post-match press conference. “It will be a long road,” he agreed humbly. With Nadal, Murray and Federer doing strong in the top league and other top players like Djokovic, Tsonga, Cilic, Roddick closing on the gap, it is going to be really tough. But many experts have started believing that the time has come for the tall lad. Delpo has the tenacity to become the World No1 two-three years down the lane. Delpo is here to make a mark in tennis history.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aon/3017707447/]