Juan Martin del Potro — The Future is Now
Belief in Victory
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray entered the U.S. Open finals in 2007 and 2008 in a similar position to Juan Martin del Potro in 2009. Each was a first time Grand Slam finalist taking on the defending champion and tennis icon Roger Federer. Djokovic broke Federer’s serve to take a 6-5 lead in the opening set and raced to a 40-0 lead. Roger somehow broke serve and won the first set in a tiebreak. Murray nervously stationed himself well beyond the baseline hoping to work his way into the match only to have his court positioning exploited by Federer. To Djokovic and Murray’s credit, both realized they did not play their best tennis in those matches, and each exacted some revenge on Roger in subsequent meetings. Djokovic’s 2008 Australian Open semifinal victory over Federer being a particularly satisfying way to avenge a U.S. Open loss.
The 2009 final was following the pattern of 2007 and 2008. Juan Martin del Potro trailed by a break in the second set after being outclassed in the first set. The Argentine battled back with some explosive forehand passing shots that reversed the momentum of the match. Del Potro won the second set tiebreak 7-5 on one mini-break. Del Potro looked to have claimed control of the match with a break of serve to lead 4-3 in the third set only to have Federer immediately break back and hold. Del Potro seemed to choke as he hit two double faults to lose the third set.
The script at this point read that Federer breaks serve early in the fourth set and wins the U.S. Open. Del Potro had other ideas and saved break points in his first two service games of the fourth set. Another tiebreak was upon both players and del Potro took advantage of a Federer double fault to win again on a single mini-break. Despite saving a break point when serving at 2-0 in the fifth set, del Potro basically dominated the final frame of play.
Juan Martin del Potro won in part because he did not ever check out of the match. The second set and early portions of the fourth set offered circumstances in which many players have folded versus Federer. Roger played a great first set and had a solid game plan. Del Potro weathered the storm, kept hitting the ball and eventually imposed his style of match on Federer. How many drop shots and net approaches did Federer attempt when court positioning was in his favor? How many did Federer attempt in the final three sets? Perseverance helped del Potro play the match on his terms.
John McEnroe mentioned that Novak Djokovic played well in the semifinal, but never projected belief that he could beat Federer. I generally agree. Juan Martin del Potro asked for a let when a plastic cup blew onto the court in the second set. He used the challenge system judiciously even when it irked Federer. He contested a use of the challenge system by Federer. I am not positing a feud between these two players. They like one another and that was evident in comments before their French Open semifinal showdown as much as it was in post match comments at the U.S. Open. What I do contend, is that del Potro conducted himself as though he belonged on the same court as Federer.
It is too bad that CBS, the USTA and Lexus could not afford a few moments for Juan Martin del Potro to address his family and Argentine fans in Spanish. The fact that del Potro insisted on doing so once again demonstrates that he is determined and mentally tough.
No Pressure = Lack of Hunger?
After the French Open, Roger Federer ended a quixotic quest and completed a career Grand Slam. He contended that he could play the rest of his career without pressure. Yet, Federer had unfinished business at Wimbledon and played a tense final with purpose and came away with a five set win and a sixth Wimbledon title. After losing the U.S. Open final due in no small part to sub par serving, Federer seemed oddly at peace. I think Roger wanted a sixth U.S. Open title, but it is worth monitoring his no pressure approach to tennis in 2010.
A Taller Game
Tennis is getting taller. Juan Martin del Potro is not always graceful, but he moves surprisingly well while generating tremendous power. Marin Cilic is 6’6” and reached the quarterfinals. These two seem to be the most coordinated of the tall brigade, but other tall players have made strides this year as well. Tennis in 2015 may be populated with tall players crushing serves and ground strokes. It is too early to give the keys to the city to taller players, but anyone under 6’4” might want to add a solid slice backhand and drop shot to their repertoire. So long as most of these taller players model their games after del Potro, I think the sport will be fine.
Hats off to Kim Clijsters for winning the U.S. Open for a second time. One way to look at her return and victory is that the WTA lacks depth. Another way to see it, is that the WTA now has another quality player active in the game.
Women’s Doubles and the USTA
While Venus Williams has to be happy that the USTA did not suspend Serena, I have to wonder what message it sends that on Saturday night a player can cross many lines and on Monday afternoon a player can win a Grand Slam doubles crown? I suspect the ITF may be considering a suspension from the 2010 Australian Open and this motivated Serena’s second apology and post-doubles match third apology. Venus and Serena have now won ten women’s doubles Grand Slams and two Olympic Gold medals in doubles. These doubles victories are helping both of their legacies. If I am Venus, I ask Serena not to jeopardize doubles opportunities.
Juan Martin del Potro won his first Grand Slam title by beating two great players consecutively. He won two tiebreakers without dropping a service point. He reacted to victory with joy and humility. Tennis can make headlines for human failings, but tennis is best when news is being written about 110 mph forehands.
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