When Juan Martin Del Potro last beat Rafael Nadal in a major, he was a gangly 20-year-old with the prospect of a successful Slam-studded career ahead of him. It was the summer of 2009 and the young Del Potro pulverized world No 3 Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the semi-finals of the US Open. Two days later he triumphed over world No 1 Roger Federer in five sets to win his first major.
Del Potro is now 29, his ambitions massively scaled down by the multiple wrist injuries he has suffered. But he still has the game that can bludgeon opponents into submission. His massive serve and forehand have held together the thin hope that someday he could be back in the winners’ circle in the majors.
“I like to see that trophy every single day in my home,” the Argentine said of the US Open trophy that is now prominently displayed in his home in Tandil. “I don't know if I can get a new one, but I'm doing all my best to try to get one again.”
The Argentine also arrived in New York this year with his own groupies: a few of his childhood friends from Tandil who have cheered him on relentlessly and entertained the audience. Their chants of “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Del-poooo, Del-poooo,” with co-ordinated arm movements, have added more colour and candour to the proceedings. “They have nothing to do,” joked Del Potro. “All day, they just practice songs.”
With his friends turned fans providing a vibrant backdrop, Del Potro has dominated at this year’s Open. He has dropped only one set in five matches at the Flushing Meadows. But in the semi-final, he will come across that familiar foe, Nadal. The 6’6 Argentine has not been able to top Nadal in Grand Slams since 2009. In three of the last four majors, the Spaniard stopped Del Potro in the tracks. Their last meeting, at Wimbledon, lasted five arduous, thrilling sets, with Nadal emerging a 7-5, 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 winner in four hours and 48 minutes.
Del Potro has a 5-11 win-loss record against Nadal, but he has to believe he has the weapons to take down the best player in the world right now. After all the US Open, more than any other place, is where Del Potro’s dream still lives. He knows the courts, has won on them. More importantly, this year he has assembled the weaponry and gathered the momentum for a big win.
“I don’t know if I’m playing my best tennis ever,” Del Potro said after beating John Isner in four sets in the quarterfinal, “but I’m feeling good.”
His fallen rival, Isner, was also quick to acknowledge the additions to the Argentine’s armoury. “That slice backhand is really good now,” Isner said. “That's from him working on that all the time.”
Backhand has always been Del Potro’s weaker wing. And that’s what Nadal had exploited when they met in the US Open semi-finals last year. Having fought back from two sets against Dominic Thiem and beaten Federer in four in the quarter-finals, Del Potro’s supporting left wrist was once again troubling him. Nadal was quick to pounce on that weakness and shrugged off the first-set loss to win the next three easily.
An injury-free Del Potro has a more solid backhand to bank on this time. He has also layered it with a backhand slice, to help push opponents deeper.
But his success will once again depend on whether he can bring the power against Nadal. His serve is one of the biggest in the business and the forehand one of the most feared. He hits it fast and flat to bullet past opponents. The US Open courts are slightly slower than the ones last year, which may give Del Potro just that fraction of a second more to get into position and unleash those power shots.
“Will be a very tough one,” Nadal said of his clash against Del Potro. “Probably Juan Martin is – in Wimbledon he’s a great player. He’s a great player on grass. Well, he’s a great player everywhere. But the challenge of playing him on hard of course is even higher for me personally than playing against him on clay, like happened in Roland Garros. I know he’s playing well. I know that I will have to play at my highest level to keep having chances of success.”
The mileage Nadal has notched up may also be crucial. The Spaniard has dropped four sets en route the last four clash, as opposed to just one by Del Potro. Nadal has spent a combined 15 hours and 53 minutes on court in his five matches, while the Argentine has clocked 12 hours and 15 minutes on court. The world No 1 looked vulnerable against another big-hitting player Karen Khachanov, and was almost done in by Dominic Thiem’s power play in the quarters.
“It could be another big battle as the Wimbledon match was,” Del Potro said. “Of course, I like to play always with the No. 1 of the world, doesn’t matter the tournament or the conditions or the weather. I just have the chance to play the greatest on this sport, and it’s amazing for me. I’m very happy for my level, for what all has been through to get in this position now. After all my problems, I think it’s time to celebrate these kind of things. I love this sport. I love the competition. I’m very proud to be here again.”
As endearing as his journey through the wilderness years has been, Del Potro has the firepower to punctuate it with another major win.
Updated Date: Sep 07, 2018 15:43:58 IST