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Juan Martin del Potro: The Next Man Who Should be King

Posted on June 06, 2010 by JA Allen

Juan Martin del Potro wins the 2009 U.S. Open over defending champion Roger Federer.

The road to the top of the game in men’s tennis is not an easy one, just ask Juan Martin del Potro who upped his ranking as high as No. 5 in the world after defeating No. 1 seed Roger Federer during the finals of the U.S. Open in 2009.

Federer was going for his sixth consecutive U.S. Open championship.  The Swiss had not lost a match at Flushing Meadows since 2003.  It was del Potro’s first win over the world No. 1 in six tries.

You cannot make it to the top of the men’s game without going through Federer.  Few have done it.  David Nalbandian stood tall defeating the Swiss in 2003 at the U.S. Open during the fourth round after Federer won his first major championship at Wimbledon earlier that summer.

Gustavo Kuerten took Federer down in the third round of the French Open in 2004. Then Marat Safin defeated the Swiss in the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2005, going on to win the Championship.

Shortly thereafter, Rafael Nadal defeated Federer in the finals at the French Open also in 2005––which marked the Majorcan’s first major win and the beginning of a remarkable run on the red clay for Nadal at Stade Roland Garros.

Federer and Nadal have battled for the top spot in men's tennis since 2005.

Nadal became Federer’s nemesis from that point forward, defeating Federer in three more finals in Paris as well as at Wimbledon in 2008 and at the Australian Open in 2009.  Nadal had never faced another opponent in a major final until Robin Soderling at the French Open in 2010.

Aside from Nadal, Federer next lost to Novak Djokovic during the 2008 Australian Open semifinals and then at the French Open in 2010, Federer went down to defeat in the quarterfinals to Swede Robin Soderling.

But the only man to defeat Federer in the finals of a major was Rafael Nadal until the summer of 2009 when the Swiss failed to hold off the determined Argentine, del Potro.

2009 marked a turning point in the life of the then 20-year-old Argentine, standing 6’ 6” tall whose movement on court remained suspect.  Although he won the Heineken Open in Auckland and was seeded No. 8 at the 2009 Australian Open, Federer dismissed del Potro 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.  It was an embarrassing loss for the young man from Argentina.  But he learned quickly from his failures.

Del Potro defeated Rafael Nadal in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open in 2009.

For example, Rafael Nadal defeated del Potro at the tournament in Indian Wells during their quarterfinal match-up in the early spring of 2009. The next time that they met, however, at the Sony Ericsson  Open in Miami, del Potro defeated Nadal coming back from a double break down in the third set.  It marked the first time del Potro defeated Nadal and it began a pattern of wins over the then No. 1 ranked player.  The win lifted del Potro to No. 5 in the ATP rankings.

When the tour moved to clay, del Potro enjoyed moderate success.  He met Federer in the semifinals at Madrid, losing the match 3-6, 4-6. As the fifth seed at the French Open del Potro advanced to the semifinals––his first major semifinal.

There he met the invincible Swiss once again.  But this time there were no bagel sets against the Argentine.   Although he lost the match, del Potro battled hard gaining more experience and garnering more hope in his five-set loss, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, 1-6, 4-6, to Federer. It marked the first time that del Potro had won a set in a match with the No. 1 seed.

Del Potro loses to Federer in the semifinals of the 2009 French Open.

The 2009 French Open instilled in del Potro the belief that he could stay with Federer in a five set match.  The 20-year-old was learning fast.  But his learning curve gave him no advantage on the grass at Wimbledon where he lost in the second round to Lleyton Hewitt.  The Argentine had not yet fashioned his game to suit the grass courts.  It remains another lesson to be learned.

During the American hard court season, del Potro won his second consecutive title in Washington D.C.  He defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals at the Masters in Montreal, his second defeat of the Majorcan. Del Potro subsequently lost in the finals to Andy Murray.  Following Montreal, Del Potro withdrew from action in Cincinnati.

The U.S. Open is where the young Argentine proved himself, being only the second man not named Federer or Nadal to win a major since 2005.  Federer’s losses at the U.S. Open are sandwiched between two Argentines, David Nalbandian who defeated him in 2003 and de Potro who defeated him in 2009.

Seeded No. 6, del Potro first won over Marin Cilic in five sets to advance to the semifinals where he faced then No. 3 ranked Rafael Nadal, defeating him once again in straight sets 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.  That meant that he would face Federer again––but this time in the finals of the 2009 U.S. Open.

Del Potro was determined not to let the 2009 U.S. Open victory slip away.

Frankly, not many gave the young Argentine much of a chance to defeat the resurgent Federer who had won the French Open and Wimbledon in succession for the first time in his illustrious career.

But this proved to be del Potro’s moment in the sun and despite being down two sets to one and then down a break in the fifth set, the Argentine hung on and fought back to take the victory from the five-time defending champion, Federer, 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2.

The overwhelming pace of del Potro’s ground strokes kept pounding Federer back, keeping the mighty Swiss on his heels.  Del Potro simply refused to cave in or go away in this match.  With his dominating serve aided by his height and the speed and power from his ground strokes, the Argentine inflicted wounds and Federer watched another potential piece of history bleed into the ground at Flushing Meadows.

The win propelled del Potro back to the No. 5 ranking and announced to the world that there was another player in the mix with Djokovic and Murray, challenging Federer and Nadal for that No. 1 ranking.  It looked like nothing could interfere with this rising star’s assured success.

Then the bottom fell out of the young Argentine’s world as fatigue and injury set in to do what neither Federer nor Nadal was able to do––sideline the young man from Argentina.

Del Potro tried to play the 2010 Australian Open with a wrist injury but lost early.

His sporadic appearances after the U.S. Open brought few victories until the year-end World Tour Finals where he defeated Federer once again in the round robin portion of the contest and Robin Soderling in the semifinals.  Del Potro lost to Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the finals.

Following his run at the World Tour Finals, the Argentine did climb to the No. 4 ranking for a short time in January of 2010, before a wrist injury caused his withdrawal at Kooyong.  This same wrist injury plagued him during the Australian Open and eventually made him unable to participate.

Del Potro and his team elected to undergo wrist surgery at the Mayo Clinic in the United States and the Argentine is hopeful to return to action but not in time to defend his title at Flushing Meadows.  In the meantime, his ranking continues to drop.

The question for the tennis world remains––will this young man from Argentina recover fully enough to be able to recapture his form and his power?  Will he be able to regain his rightful place at the top of the men’s game?  As we watch the other top players battle for the No. 1 ranking, as Federer finally loses his grip, you have to like the chances of this 21-year old tennis phenom, Juan Martin del Potro.

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