Can Del Potro Really Challenge Again?

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As the American hard court swing really gets underway, Juan Martin Del Potro remains forever the enigma. Viewed by many as the best player outside the top four, his fans expectantly await the day when he lifts a second Grand Slam title. However, since clinching the US Open three years ago, there has been little to indicate that his success was anything other than a one-off.

He first appeared on the tennis radar in the latter half of 2008. Entering the Stuttgart event, he was ranked 62 in the world, a position he had been floating around for well over a year. However, a stunning run of form saw him win four straight titles on both clay and hard courts, setting the second longest unbeaten run as a teenager in the Open era. By November, he had secured a top ten ranking and a place in the Tour Finals.

In comparison, the next season was relatively average, particularly in light of the high expectations, until the American swing. A title in Washington saw hopes raised ahead of the US Open. He then reached the final in Montreal, beating Rafael Nadal on route, before succumbing to Andy Murray in the final. The whispers were growing in volume – could this talented 20-year old really sustain a challenge for the US Open title?

He cruised through to the semi-final, although concerns where he would face Rafael Nadal. He already had two consecutive victories over the Spaniard, but neither in a Grand Slam. It was barely a contest. Del Potro crushed Nadal for the loss of only six games. It set the scene for an epic final encounter with Roger Federer, which the Argentinean eventually won in just over four hours.

It was seen as the coming of a new tennis superstar, who could break the Federer-Nadal domination at the top of the game. However, it was a false dawn. Four months later, he lost in the fourth round in Australia – the last time that we would see him on a tennis court for almost nine months.

A wrist injury, requiring surgery, was the problem. He made a low-key return in September in Thailand, where he lost in straight sets to Olivier Rochus. It would be January before his first victory.

However, he has not been the same player since his return. Initially, it was justified by the fact that he was easing himself back in and getting his fitness back to where it needed to be – a perfectly acceptable argument.

Now, though, it is almost two years since his return. There are still few signs that he has what it takes to win another Grand Slam. He has only made two quarter-finals in the seven Grand Slams that he has played.

To win a Grand Slam, chances are that he will need to beat at least two of the big four. However, his record against these players is poor to say the least. Since his return, he has lost seven in a row against Roger Federer and three in a row against Nadal. Indeed, his victory at the Olympics against Djokovic marks the first time that he has beaten one of these players since 2009.

Maybe he can take a boost from that victory. However, it is worth noticing something about Del Potro’s biggest matches since his comeback. The three matches where his supporters have suggested he is back to his best were the Davis Cup tie against Nadal late last year and his two matches against Federer and Djokovic at the Olympics. All matches where he is representing his country rather than himself, raising similarities with his countryman, David Nalbandian – another player who has arguably flattered to deceive outside of the Davis Cup.

On his day, there is little doubt that he has the ability to beat the top players – he has proven that in the past. However, his style of play requires him to be perfect. He hits the ball very flat with a huge swing. If he times it slightly wrong or his movement to the ball, not one of his strong points, is even slightly off, the ball is liable to fly either into the net or sail long.

It is this that begs the question of whether he merely just hit a stunning run of form through that US Open. We have seen it in the past with Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling – both players with big hitting games that, when on a roll, can be incredibly difficult to stop. The only difference is that Del Potro won in the final.

If Del Potro had lost that 2009 US Open final to Roger Federer, would he be talked about in the same terms as he is today – a future Grand Slam winner again? Or would he simply be among that group of players who could cause a shock in a semi-final, but is a finalist at best – the likes of Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

My view is that he belongs amongst the latter. Undoubtedly he has the potential to beat the top players. However, I feel it is unlikely that he will be the top player that many seem to think. The injury has certainly had an effect, but its continuing use as an excuse is getting old. Maybe he simply is not good enough,

This US Open could be his big chance to prove the doubters, myself included, wrong. With Nadal’s injury concerns and Djokovic’s personal problems, it is one of the most open tournaments in many years. He needs to prove he can challenge again. Or else, he will simply be marked down as a one-hit wonder.

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