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Friday, October 21, 2011
Why Juan Martin del Potro is the X factor

Every once in a while, you get an X factor in tennis, a circumstance or individual who might unexpectedly have an enormous impact on the status quo or force the obvious script to go awry.

A change of surface at a tournament, a rainout, the switch to a new and different ball, the emergence of a new star or the resurgence of a veteran can all have a significant effect on the way things work out. The X factor in tennis right now is Juan Martin del Potro.

Del Potro hadn't hit a ball at an ATP tournament since the U.S. Open until he started in Stockholm this past Thursday. It was mildly surprising that he skipped all the Asian events; maybe he decided the karma is bad for him across the Pacific after he lost a pair first-rounders there last year (Bangkok and Tokyo) and promptly pulled the plug on what turned out to be a premature comeback.

DelPo couldn't have expected too much of himself at those fall of 2010 events, given that he hadn't played at all since January of that year because of a wrist injury that required surgery. But he came on strong again in 2011, until a disappointing summer left him high and dry at his present ranking of No. 15. Weeks ago, he declared that he skipped the Asian circuit because he wanted to prepare for the Davis Cup final.

Spain will host Argentina in that Davis Cup final, the last official tennis event of the year, in early December on an indoor clay court in Seville, Spain. But don't get the idea that Delpo locked himself away in some indoor facility to work on his clay-court game. He's got a full plate of indoor hard-court events on his docket -- so much so that you wonder if he won't have shot his wad by the time the Davis Cup final rolls around.

DelPo, who lost to James Blake in Stockholm, will play in Vienna, Valencia and the final Masters 1000 event of the year, the Paris Indoors. That is, he doesn't have a single week off until the end of Paris. And if he qualifies for Paris, he'll have just one week of rest before facing Rafael Nadal & Co. on clay in Seville. To me, it sounds like DelPo is preparing for the ATP World Tour Finals, not the Davis Cup.

Presently, DelPo is four places out from qualifying for the elite eight, who will clash in London's O2 Arena come Nov. 20. But he's been as ranked as high as No. 4, has won a major, and he's already neck-and-neck with all the players below No. 8, where Jo-Wilfried Tsonga sits with a significant cushion (with 2790 ranking points, he leads DelPo by some 700-plus points -- a significant but not insurmountable margin). DelPo has no points to defend, while Tsonga has just 90.

Should DelPo win Vienna (ATP 250) and Valencia (ATP 500), he'll be in a dead heat with Tsonga going into the big Paris indoors tournament. But though DelPo's drive to qualify for the year-end championships is the main storyline, he could play a significant role in a few of the other narratives.

DelPo has enough power and range to hurt No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Nadal hasn't exactly been himself this year, and DelPo once put together a three-match hard-court win streak over the No. 2 (it included a win in the U.S. Open semis). And, of course, he hammered Roger Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final, and later that year at the World Tour Finals as well (Delpo is 2-1 against Federer in their past three meetings on hard courts).

Sometimes it's hard to sustain interest in tennis as the year winds down in Asia and Europe, which is why it's good to have an X factor in play. Del Potro is armed for bear. He's 6-foot-6 and he owns a 100 mph-plus forehand and a big serve. That's not just an X factor -- that's an XL factor.