He was down amongst the dead men. Despite starting the match on the front foot and winning the first set, the tide had seemingly begun to turn against him in the second. He had a chance to stem the flow away from him in the second set tiebreak. A match point where the ball fell invitingly short to his favoured forehand. And del Potro slammed the ball into the net. Federer levelled the match two points later, and it seemed the Argentine’s chance was gone.
It took the ‘Tower of Tandil’ some time to shake off that missed opportunity. Early on in the decider he was listless, slapping shots away, some for clean winners, some into the net, with seemingly little interest in the outcome. Had Federer been more clinical in those moments he might have finished his opponent. But the great Swiss was struggling too. Both men had been riled in the tiebreak, exchanging angry words with each other and the beleaguered umpire, Fergus Murphy. And neither was at his best.
But it still looked like it was Federer, who brought an unbeaten to the year start into the match, who was tightening his grip on the match. He was beginning to get involved in del Potro service games whilst shutting out his opponent from his own. At 4-4 he heaped the pressure on. He forced a break point at the end of a superb rally, that del Potro saved with a combination of a big serve and a big forehand. But a second break point was created and then taken by Federer with a scorching backhand.
With Federer serving for the match few would have backed the Argentine. Even fewer when Federer held two match points up 40-15. But del Potro fought them off, and then another, with Federer twice using the drop shot perhaps unwisely. And then, almost out of nowhere, del Potro had a chance of his own as he earned a break point. He took it in magnificent style, hammering away a forehand. A tiebreak soon followed, and it was one that Federer would doubtless like forget as two doubles and a handful of errors handed del Potro his biggest title since his US Open win.
The long road back
Luck is a far bigger factor in separating the greats from the mere mortals than many would assume. Of course there are a select few that are simply better than the rest, but that number is larger than the list of all-time greats. The reason for that is that there are some players who for all their talent, just cannot stay injury-free for long enough to challenge for and win the biggest titles regularly. Tommy Haas was one. Juan Martin del Potro is another.
The Argentine had all the attributes to have become an all-time great. His forehand is a shot of such devastating power as shall likely never be seen again. His backhand, for much of his career, has been a formidable weapon in its own right. He moves well for such a big man and is a fine server. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he is mentally as solid as a rock. He showed that again when he came back against Federer. He joined what is surely an exclusive club of men who have saved three match points against Federer and gone on to triumph.
Considering those ingredients which make, in effect, the perfect tennis player, it is hard to imagine that he would not have gone on to challenge the big four in the years that followed his triumph at the US Open in 2009. But del Potro was prevented from doing so by serious wrist injuries that first struck following the 2010 Australian Open and then again in early 2014. They have seen him miss years of his career and required three surgeries.
He has managed to return to the top ten after both layoffs, but the impact of such injuries is deeper than just the time missed. To return after missing so much tennis requires fitness and sharpness to be rebuilt, and after 2014 for del Potro to rebuild his backhand. Whilst his rivals were able to compete for and win the biggest trophies in the game, del Potro was often forced to work hard just to be able to take to the court again.
Del Potro’s triumph in Indian Wells, and indeed the 11-match winning streak he is currently on, will have raised hopes that he can possibly win another Slam. It would certainly be a popular outcome in the tennis world for a man universally respected and liked by players and fans alike. But the prospect of the ‘Tower of Tandil’ adding to the US Open title he won almost a decade ago is still arguably fairly distant despite his Indian Wells win.
As well as del Potro can play when he is at his best, questions remain about how well his body can stand up to two weeks of best-of-five-sets tennis. Last year, he put together a thrilling run at the US Open that included upsetting Federer in the quarterfinals in the semifinals. Just as they have been this week, hopes were raised again about another magical del Potro fortnight at a Slam. But against Nadal in the semifinals, despite a strong start, he was undone by fatigue.
The harsh truth is that del Potro’s second Major title may well never come. Though he seems young, the Argentine is already nearly 30-years-old. At some point, it seems inevitable that at least some of the current cadre of injured stars will get back to their best. Djokovic is already back on Tour and searching for form. And there is no shortage of young stars. But, del Potro has defied expectations almost non-stop since his return to the Tour. And for now, the sun is certainly shining on him.
What do you think the future holds for del Potro? Let us know in the comments below!