Although some tennis fans might like to hunt down Juan Martin del Potro and fling him off a bridge for getting in the way of yet another clash between ATP No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Novak Djokovic, it would be a mistake to write off the hulking, shy, reticent 6-foot-6 Argentine as just a high-level spoiler.
Delpo's mastery of Nadal in the Shanghai semifinals, followed by an extremely close loss (7-6 in the third set) to Djokovic in the final Sunday, was anything but a timely trip into a zone -- The Zone -- that del Potro isn't destined to inhabit for any significant length of time. Rather, it’s becoming the kind of thing he does for a living, and who knows, one day soon he might again beat two icons back-to-back on one of the game’s great stages -- as he did when he shocked Nadal and then stunned Roger Federer to win the 2009 US Open.
Nadal generated headlines the other day after the loss to del Potro in Shanghai and took some flak for revealing to the press that in that 2009 US Open semifinal with Delpo, he was suffering from a terribly painful 26-millimeter (1.02 inches) tear in his abdominal wall. Ironically, Nadal was trying to explain why he considered the 6-2, 6-4 win by Delpo in Shanghai even more persuasive that the 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 rout in New York because this time Nadal was healthy.
That’s kind of how it is for del Potro. Even a guy like Nadal feels obliged to grab you by the lapels, shake and declare, "No, this guy isn’t just good, like Tomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is good. He’s really good."
Del Potro’s record bears it out. He is back up to a solid No. 5 world ranking. At 25, he’s no kid anymore, that’s true. He needs to fish or cut bait. But remember that Delpo lost an entire year to surgery rehab just months after he won his first and, thus far, only major. And let’s face it: Delpo isn’t a mercurial guy who’s likely to rebuild his confidence in a few weeks or months. He’s diligent and methodical almost to the point of being plodding, but what he builds is on a very, very solid foundation. His game shows that; it’s the equivalent of a mission-style table made of solid oak.
That game has carried Delpo to strange and wild places, like that five-set semifinal loss to Djokovic this year at Wimbledon and the excruciating loss to Nadal in the finals of Indian Wells. It seems that every time you turn around, del Potro is coming off some epic, intense performance against one icon or another. And coming up just short less often than it may seem.
Isn't this the guy who denied Federer the title on his home court in Basel, Switzerland, just last year? The one who had three straight wins over Nadal in that enchanted 2009? The game-puncher who lost 19-17 in the third set in the semis of the 2012 Olympic Games to the selfsame Federer, only to bounce back to snatch the bronze from the hands of Djokovic?
You bet. And what you have to ask yourself is: How much longer can the fates conspire to keep del Potro from winning another major? The answer may be, not very long.
After the Shanghai final, Delpo confessed: "I think I'm playing even better than 2009, or 2008, or last year. … I still have the same goal, which is [to] get closer to the top guys. If I still work like this, I hope I can be there one day.”
He’s clearly humble, and he’s obviously grounded. He knows just how close he is to the summit of tennis. Heck, he’s virtually a No. 3 already since current No. 4 David Ferrer is fading fast at 31 and No. 3 Andy Murray is out until the beginning of next year.
Delpo lost a three-setter to Djokovic last year in the ATP World Tour finals. In 2009, he made the final but was upset by Nikolay Davydenko. Last week, he qualified for the elite eight again, and that means he’ll have at least one more chance this year to close a deal he’s been working on patiently and doggedly for nearly three years now.