Juan Martin del Potro’s career has almost always had a tryst with injuries. This tryst has been the subject of considerable comment and speculation since he made his comeback to tennis in 2016. What followed were victories against the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the Rio Olympics and in the Davis Cup semi-final. These victories were testimonials to the fact that he could still pack a punch when it came to the biggest stages of the game.
A year later, in his win over Roger Federer in the quarter-final of the US Open on Wednesday, he has added another testimonial, perhaps his most high-profile one. Del Potro’s achievement is even more significant, when you consider that the 28-year-old from Tandil wasn’t even in the reckoning as a possible spoiler for the much-awaited “Fedal” clash when the draw was released.
Big match player
There is no doubt that del Potro has also proved himself to be a big match player.
Going into his match against Federer, del Potro had the dubious distinction of losing all five matches he had played against players ranked inside the top-five. Starting with the then fourth-ranked Milos Raonic in the semi-finals of the Delray Beach Open in February to his third-round loss to the then top-ranked Murray at the French Open in June, the 28-year-old was made to look completely ordinary. It almost looked as if his return to tennis from the sidelines had been over-hyped in the first place.
But, what del Potro managed to do in Flushing Meadows was to tune out these factors and focus on himself entirely – beginning with his fourth round tussle against Dominic Thiem. He had to bide his time with Thiem, shaking off fever-induced fatigue to eke out the win. Once he had got past that hurdle though, it was as if could play freely with nothing to restrain his game.
“I played really well. I served so good. I hit my forehand as hard as I can,” Del Potro acknowledged, post-match. This was only a fraction of the display he had put out on the court, but it summed it up. Even tying it back to his results in 2016, it was this lack of pressure that had made him a dangerous floater, trying to ascend through the rankings yet again.
Benefitting from a change of tactics
Rankings in tennis demand consistency not only across tournaments in a single calendar year, but also across events for the following seasons as well.
While a persistent wrist injury and necessary rehab has had made this a moot point for del Potro, it has, however, diverted attention onto his game. With the focus remaining solely on his backhand, del Potro has managed to sharpen his forehand further.
It is no secret that del Potro’s backhand is not the same weapon that it used to be when he ranked as high as fourth in the world, with the potential of winning a few Majors. Then again, while his backhand may not be lethal, it does not have the same middling quality of 2016 when he used to merely slice and cut at the ball on his backhand side to keep it in play long enough to get into position on his forehand wing.
It has evolved as well, with him landing a few handy winners to the extent that even he made a note of it in his press conference after beating Federer. “I play very smart game during the whole match,” he said. “I hit my best backhand of the tournament, which is a good signal.’’
Although, these days, he still relies on his powerful forehand to do the damage one can see more than a smattering of his two-handed backhand, alongside the slice returns. This, in turn, helps to unsteady his opponents without them knowing how he is going set up a shot, which helps him to gain more leverage through his game.
“I served so good. I hit my forehands hard as I can,” mentioned del Potro about his tactics. Visible as its potency was against Federer, there’s a lot more to be expected in his semi-final against the left-handed Nadal.
One would have expected del Potro to talk about the forehand-to-backhand metrics that usually forms a mainstay of the Spaniard’s tactics against those with relatively weaker backhands. The Argentine’s statement stood out as he stated, “Against Rafa, he is a lefty so he will come after my forehand.”
Given that the potential play-by-play would only have Nadal going behind del Potro’s forehand if he stays on his backhand side, it does pose an interesting question as to whether del Potro has already chalked up a game-plan for the Mallorcan as well?
Not that it would be surprising, for he is the only player who had defeated Nadal and Federer in consecutive rounds. Right here, in Flushing Meadows – back in 2009.