From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.39 :: Sep. 26, 2009
Not many saw this coming. There was Roger Federer, father of twins, finding focus despite the bigger picture; there was Rafael Nadal, back from a difficult few injury-plagued months; there was Novak Djokovic, caught somewhere between being genuine world No. 4 material and entertainer without the convincing unabashed manner or the looks of Goran Ivanisevic or Marat Safin; and then there was the great British hope Andy Murray, a proof that the sport’s sense of irony and cruelty isn’t as globalised as the sport itself. Juan Martin Del Potro was included for symmetry, as a safety net if this turned out to be a tournament for dark horses, or simply to make sure the kid, who did nothing more than rise rapidly and win tournaments, wasn’t forgotten. Not many genuinely believed he would win.
The six-foot-six Argentine’s remarkable run at the US Open brought to a close what has been a historic Grand Slam year, raising again the question that crops up with every Federer defeat in Slams: Is this it? Nadal, Djokovic and now Del Potro have been responsible for Federer’s defeat at Grand Slams, but as the Swiss has proved in the past, writing him off has had little weight. But if there’s one thing Del Potro has done, it’s to establish himself as a Slam contender.
Del Potro’s defeat of Federer in the final was a shock result. The giant versus the tennis giant, literal versus figurative, one of sport’s cliche-laden battles of contrasts and wordplay was sometimes compressed and sometimes distilled, purely for the intensity and the rapidity of Del Potro’s strokes.
Del Potro, when given the room for the optimal wingspan materialisation, struck the ball with ridiculous force. Federer’s battle-hardened instincts sometimes lose out to his natural instincts and his desire to take on his opponent on the latter’s terms. This time, they weren’t allowed the results he wanted.
Del Potro was by no means consistent, but he was resilient. A first-time finalist, down a set and a break against arguably the game’s greatest, did not stick to the script. He lost the third set after two double faults, and there were signs of a fourth-set meltdown and a Federer win. Again, he did not stick to the script. Federer saved two matchpoints in the decider bringing the game to deuce, and again, Del Potro hung on, before winning 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.
“The beginning of the match I was so nervous, I can’t sleep last night. I don’t take a breakfast...that’s part of the final, you know. But Roger start very good. I start little down. I miss — I was bad with my serve, and that’s important weapon of my game. When I broke his serve for first time, I start to believe in my game. To change,” said Del Potro.
“When I won the second set, I think if I continuing playing same way, maybe I have chance to win. But after, when I lost the third set, going to break up, I start to think bad things, you know. It was so difficult to keep trying, to keep fighting. But one more time the crowd and the fans helped me a lot to fight until last point. I think I have to say thank you to everyone for that.”
The most significant aspect of Del Potro’s success has been his belief and mental strength, despite often simplistically attributed to such breakthroughs. The Argentine has come a long way from the double-bagel loss to Federer at the Australian Open this year. More heartbreaking than that was the French Open semifinal loss after being up two sets to one and later 3-3 in the decider. Del Potro was gutted, and overcome with emotion. That loss was a lot tougher to handle than any other.
Three months later there was another semifinal, another opportunity. Against Nadal in the semifinals, Del Potro was not just ‘in the zone’, but also in a position to contain Nadal’s elaborate shot setup and deny him the opportunity to scramble back into contention. Nadal was hurting, but Del Potro wasn’t taking a chance. Against Federer, there were signs of struggle and self-doubt, but not enough to interfere with his shot-making and in converting the opportunities Federer was giving him. In those moments in the match, Del Potro’s arrival was complete.
The 20-year-old’s addition to the top-heavy men’s game adds further drama, personality and dimension to the sport. The US Open champion is immensely likable, soft-spoken (for a big guy of course. ‘Gentle Giants’, specially the lumbering ones, have the same contrast-appeal that small and feisty ones do), without frills and has given millions of tennis fans around a glimpse of the raw emotional release that comes from winning one’s first ever Grand Slam.
Along with Djokovic and Murray — who should go on to win his first Slam — and the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and even Andy Roddick, the quality of tennis in the men’s game leaves open an element of surprise, going deeper into Slams.
The champion qualities of Federer and Nadal are unquestionable, but men’s tennis has only benefited from this year’s US Open winner, even if nothing much changes next year.
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