Juan Martin del Potro, it seemed, didn’t get too many things wrong for his biggest match of this year’s French Open. But he lost 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.
He was in a good mindset ahead of the match. “Now I’m [in the] semi-finals, which means something great to me. So I have nothing to lose tomorrow,” he had said, after subduing third seed Cilic 7-6 (7/5), 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarters.
This is a good attitude to have when you play against Rafael Nadal, who gleans invincibility from the orange-red dust in Paris.
But attitude isn’t enough.
What is, then? What about powerful forehands?
Del Potro possesses that as well. The six-foot-six Argentine’s forehands look like they are struck not by a tennis racquet but by Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor. In fact, on Friday’s semi-final, his forehand speed was more than 10 kph faster than it had been throughout the tournament. The forehands were instrumental in creating the six chances to break Nadal in the first set.
But powerful forehands, too, aren’t enough. Nadal saved all six break points and converted one of his two own to pocket the first set.
Perseverance is a useful – sometimes even necessary – virtue against Nadal. And, Del Potro hung on despite some physical discomforts.
In the third game, he hurt his hip whilst twisting and stretching to get close to a screaming Nadal forehand that had completely wrong-footed him. Del Potro winced in pain, got up, and limped to his seat. He got some treatment, but carried on.
Turns out that it isn’t enough if you can persevere. Nothing is enough to beat Nadal on clay, at the French Open.
The helplessness of the victims whom Nadal had vanquished at Roland Garros this year was rendered by Del Potro in the penultimate game of the second set. He had lost the first five games of the set and was fighting to avoid a bagel in the sixth.
He was 15-40 down but with characteristic dour, he fought back to hold his serve. The realisation of the herculean effort he had to put in to survive on his own serve prompted him to look heavenwards and pump both his fists.
‘He’s too strong’
“[Nadal] is playing every point better from the beginning until the last point of the match, and his intensity is growing up very much during the match, and it’s tough to be there all the time,” said the Argentine after the match.
The big serves, the monstrous forehands and the clever changes in pace seemed to have an effect on Nadal in the first set. Del Potro was returning well, too. His return points percentage of 35 was better than Nadal’s 31. But every time Nadal was facing a break point, the pressure ironically was on Del Potro.
“He’s too strong. He’s improving his backhand a lot. That’s why he’s the No 1 and beating all the guys. He looks fresh. I mean, he’s healthy. And the strength that he has and the mentally, everything is perfect, works perfect for him playing in clay,” Del Potro added.
Of course, Del Potro’s compatriot Diego Schwartzman managed to become the only person in this year’s French Open to win a set against Nadal. But by now, he will be wondering if it was some sort of a glitch in the space-time continuum.
“He’s a big favourite against everybody. Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan. If I want to beat him, I have to play the way I did in Rome [last year] and in Madrid,” said Nadal’s opponent in the final Dominic Thiem – the only person to have beaten him on clay this season.
But as he himself added later, Nadal in Paris in a best-of-five match is a different ball-game from Nadal elsewhere (even on clay). For, in Paris, at Court Philippe Chartrier, on the last day of Roland Garros, Nadal has never lost.
The only ones to stop Nadal at the French Open – Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling – managed to do it only before the semi-final. If Nadal is good enough to get to the last hurdle, he’s sure to cross it. For, he’s healthy, in imperious form, and motivated to do something that he’s done ten times before.
“Sunday is the day to give my best, increase even a little bit more the level,” said the 10-time champion at Roland Garros after brushing aside Del Potro.
What? Increase the level? More than this? Scary.
Good luck, Dominic.