When you write about tennis, you tend to read a lot about it too. The other day, I was checking out a post over at The Fan Child's blog on Juan Martin Del Potro, specifically whether or not the 6'6" Argentine was back. What originally began as a comment on his blog got longer and longer and well, turned into the full post you see here. My question isn't "Is Del Potro back" it's "What does 'back' mean?"
The tennis world is such a never-ending carousel of players winning and losing, breaking through and falling off the radar at such a dizzying rate that any individual result tends to be forgotten almost as soon as the next tournament wraps up. The one exception is major championships, especially for the men these days. Because in recent memory, it's been Roger, Rafa, lately Novak and virtually no one else. The word "virtually" leaves just enough room for the Tower of Tandil, Juan Martín Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion.
The reason we haven't forgotten that achievement is less because Del Potro won a major title (Seriously, how long was the name Gaston Gaudio on the tip of your tongue?), but because of how he won it. Del Potro emerged from a rank-and-file that was so marginalized in the Fedal era, we barely bothered to learn the names of players outside the top four. Not only that, he didn't benefit from fluky draw openings to get his moment in the sun, no, he thwomped Rafa Nadal and outlasted Roger Federer to capture that US Open crown. Not only that, Del Potro was also a 20 year old making an early career statement, not a veteran contender finally validating his career.
What followed that US Open? Well, Delpo largely disappeared until that year's World Tour Finals when he fell to Nikolay Davydenko in the final, giving further rise to the Argentine's reputation as a man enamored with the big stages. From there, the story turned...he would play only six official matches in 2010, his season thwarted by a wrist injury. What at first seemed minor, suddenly looked as if it would not only slow his seemingly promised rise to the top of men's tennis, but derail it altogether.
The Tower, though, is back on track. So far in 2011, his comeback appears to be in full force. Del Potro has won titles in Delray Beach and Estoril and posted a career best result at Wimbledon, reaching the 4th round (l. to Nadal). He's ranked 19th in the world (after falling as far as No. 485 at the start the year) and he has all of zero points to defend the rest of the year. In other words, rankings wise, it's all gravy, all year.
Even more fearsome for the rest of the tour, Del Potro's hitting that huge, fluid forehand of his with extra hot sauce these days.
But, what does it really portend? Del Potro is 2-5 versus Top 10 players this year, both wins over Soderling. He's played Djokovic and Nadal in tough four-setters at the French Open and Wimbledon respectively, but he lost both of those matches. He's won nine career titles, but the US Open was his only major or even masters level win. In other words, might we all be a bit hasty in proclaiming Del Potro to be the next top dog? A little bit, yes and a little bit, no.
On the positive side of the ledger, Del Potro is coming into his favorite part of the season, the summer hardcourt season where we expect him to inflict serious damage. Four of his nine titles have come in the American hardcourt summer. He's also getting a head start by playing this week in Los Angeles and next in Washington, DC ahead of the Masters events where virtually all the top players will compete. It certainly wouldn't be far-fetched to consider the 2nd seeded del Potro the favorite (over No. 1 Mardy Fish) in LA, especially seeing as Marcos Baghdatis and Thomaz Bellucci are the 3rd and 4th seeds.
On the other hand, do we think the Novak Express will grind to a halt given the month off since Wimbledon? Do we think Nadal is content to ignore the rest of the year having won his 6th title at Roland Garros? Do we think Federer isn't going to fight tooth and nail to keep his name in the mix at the top? I'd answer no, no and no. Do I think Del Potro's a better player than any of the three? Not today. Lots of fans raise his three 2009 wins over Nadal, look at Nadal's pock-marked 2009 campaign and tell me that with a straight face. Lots of fans will look at his win over Federer at the US Open final and consider it a mark of Del Potro's superiority. Eh, the match went five sets and that was when Del Potro was on fire in the summer of 2009. Djokovic is simply a different animal than he was a year ago. Del Potro can make it competitive for sure, but I'd have a hard time picking anyone to beat Djokovic on a hardcourt right about now.
So, what am I saying? If I'm Andy Murray or Robin Soderling, I'm nervous. The gravy train is leaving the station. Del Potro peaked at 4th in the world rankings and subjectively I'd put him right around that same ranking today. Maybe I'll feel differently by the time the US Open rolls around, but not today. Is Del Potro back? Back to where he was? Yes. He's playing like a solid Top 10/borderline Top 5 player right now. Is he back to challenging for the World No. 1 ranking though? Talk to me next year. There is a big four after all; I just wonder if the fourth member isn't Juan Martin Del Potro.