On August 4th, Juan Martin Del Potro won the 2013 Citi Open in Washington D.C. This is Del Potro’s 15th Singles title overall, and his third at the Citi Open. The last time Del Potro won the Citi Open was in 2009, and used the success of his win to set up a run on the American hardcourt tour, cumulating in an epic five set win over Roger Federer to claim the US Open. On the way, he delivered the most one-sided beating that Rafael Nadal ever experienced at a grand slam, annihilating him 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the semi-finals. The emergence of Del Potro in 2009 created a new degree of dynamism in the top ranks of professional tennis, long dominated by the “Big 4” Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Del Potro’s emergence was a little unusual as it took a fair bit of time for his body to match his game. A superbly talented junior player out of Tandil, Argentina he won his first ATP level match at 15 and went pro at the age of 17, ending as the youngest player to finish in the top 200. Preternaturally talented in each successive year, Del Potro finished as the youngest player ranked in the top 100, 50 and 10 in the world. However, during this stretch Del Potro’s game was forced to evolve. Del Potro stands at an intimidating 1.98 m allowing him huge leverage on his groundstrokes and serve. His height also allows him to counteract players who use heavy topspin, such as Rafael Nadal. Early in his career Del Potro was almost comically skinny. He embarked on a serious fitness regimen, and by the middle of 2009 he looked significantly larger, especially in his shoulders and back. It was at this point that he began to really compete against the top players, including scoring his first victory over Roger Federer in seven attempts. What Del Potro added to him game to allow this, was something that no other player his height has ever possessed, elite movement skills. Movement has always been the enemy of tall players, as they have that much more length and mass to drag around the court. Del Potro however possesses superb defensive skills and the ability to quickly turn defence to attack. While he is not as great a mover as Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray, he makes up for it with devastatingly powerful and precise groundstrokes that he can play from both wings. His forehand is particularly strong and thanks to his height he can hit it almost straight on, resulting in a penetrating flat shot that skids off the court and is hard to defend.
Shortly after his win, he reached no. 4 in the world, the highest ranking of his career. But a major wrist injury slowed him significantly in early 2010. The injury lingered and became so severe Del Potro was forced to get surgery. His recovery was slow, and he ended up missing a full 9 months. During this stretch he was unable to defend his US Open title in 2010. And when he did return to the ATP Tour, it was clear that he was not the player he was before the injury. It took 17 months from his US Open win for Del Potro to win his next tournament, the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships in February, 2011. Even then, he clearly was not in form, going only 8-4 in Grand Slam play and winning only two other titles in the next calendar year. During that stretch he fell from no.4 in the world to no.485. The road back was hard, but Del Potro steadily regained the aspects of his game that made him so dangerous. By January, 2012 he finally regained a spot in the top ten.
From that point on, Del Potro has been a force on tour, reaching the quarterfinals in 3 Grand slams in 2012. Though he was forced to miss the clay court French Open in 2013, arguably his best surface, Del Potro has been on a tear since. At this year’s Wimbledon, Del Potro reached the semifinals, claiming the scalp of current world no.4 David Ferrer in the Quarterfinals, before losing to world no.1 Novak Djokovic, 7-5 4-6 7-6(7) 6-7(8) 6-3, in what was easily the best match of the year. The match pitted Del Potro’s signature punishing groundstrokes against Djokovic’s world class retrieval skills and direction change ability. Del Potro threw everything but the kitchen sink at Djokovic, often causing him to slip as he scrambled to keep shots in play. Del Potro also displayed the unshakable mettle that he became known for when he won the 2009 US Open, saving two match points in a fourth set tiebreaker to force a fifth set. While he ended up losing the match, Djokovic was clearly so worn out from the match he was a shadow of himself in the final, which he lost to Andy Murray in straight sets. Wimbledon showed that Del Potro is back in to his pre-injury form and can, on any day, send shivers down the spine of any player on tour.
The tennis season has now moved to the North American hard court tour where Del Potro tends to thrive. In his first action back after Wimbledon, he won in Washington. The last time Del Potro won there, he ended up winning the US Open as well. This isn’t to say that he will win it again, but his form and fitness are good, and he seems to be in rhythm. Additionally, The us open is probably the fastest court in the world right now, and that benefits Del Potro’s offensive, relatively flat game substantially. If anyone outside the big 4 has a chance to win this year’s US Open, the odds are it will be Del Potro.