World #19 and World Tour Finals hopeful Juan Martin del Potro takes on French veteran Julien Benneteau in the second round in Basel. The big Argentine has been in excellent form lately, making it to the last four in New York and Shanghai. Indeed, his run at the US Open saw him score an impressive quarterfinal win against Roger Federer. Benneteau, a champion at the French Open in doubles three years ago, is coming to the end of what has been a fine career. But he will be eager to have another crack against one of the sport’s best. Can he upset the odds?
The pair have met just once in their careers, surprising considering how long both competed near the top of the game. That clash came four years ago in the final of the Rotterdam Open. Benneteau had scored the second victory of his career against Roger Federer en route to the finals, before defeating countryman Gilles Simon in the final. But against the power of del Potro he had no answer, despite a valiant effort. Benneteau managed to force del Potro to a tiebreak in the first set, but thereafter the Argentine was in control. He won the tiebreak seven points to two and broke Benneteau twice in the second set to complete a 7-6 6-2 victory and lift the title.
Path to the second round
The ‘Tower of Tandil’ began his Swiss Indoors campaign against Joao Sousa of Portugal. Sousa has had an indifferent season this year, after a career-best year in 2016. That form which has seen him pick up just 24 match wins against 30 defeats has also seen him fall out of the Top 50. Now at #60 he looked outclassed against del Potro early on. The Argentine raced away with the first set, winning it 6-1. But Sousa put up a determined rearguard action in the second set, and held del Potro at bay. A break at 4-4 for the Portuguese put him in position to take the set and he did just that. But, in the decider, del Potro turned on the power and eased into the second round, wrapping up a 6-1 4-6 6-1 win.
Benneteau, now ranked at #93, had to qualify into the Swiss Indoors. He did so without dropping a set, defeating Felix Auger Aliassime 6-4 6-3 and Marcel Granollers 6-4 6-4. That earned him a spot in the first round where he faced off against America’s Donald Young. Young, the higher ranked man, might have been expected to come through the match. But Benneteau showed some of the old magic to defeat the American 6-4 6-2. If he can find that kind of performance against del Potro, another upset could be on the cards.
How do they match up?
That the obvious strength of del Potro’s game is the forehand does not make it any less worthy of comment. He hits the shot with a power that is arguably unique, and the spin he gets on the ball is also unusual. Rather than hit it with more topspin, as the other top players such as Nadal, Federer and Djokovic do, del Potro seems to hit flat through the ball. How exactly he manages to combine that flat spin with the ball finding the court is unclear, but it is certainly effective. He is also hitting his backhand with more confidence. It has been a notable feature of the past few weeks that del Potro has been starting to press with that shot. That could be troubling news for his competitors.
Benneteau lacks one major weapon. That has arguably been what has held him back from ever winning a Tour-level singles title. But, he is an excellent all-rounder. Even at 35 years of age, his movement remains excellent and his forehand and backhand are difficult to break down. Against del Potro he will need to use his skills in the forecourt, however. As a Major doubles champion, and a finalist at Wimbledon in doubles, he is one of the foremost volleyers to be found in singles. If he can get to the net consistently, he might be able to make del Potro uncomfortable.
This match won’t be as comfortable as it looks on paper for del Potro. Benneteau is a canny competitor with years of experience at the highest level. But del Potro doesn’t want for that experience himself. He should have enough power in his trusty forehand to hit through Benneteau’s defence and reach the quarterfinals in three sets.
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