Monday, September 28, 2009

A STAR IS (NOT QUITE YET) BORN

He had a lot of opportunities to pack it in on that Monday evening in Queens – down a break in the second and receiving to stay in the set, or up a break in the 4th and giving it back before serving to stay in the set.

But he didn’t.

Because Juan Martin del Potro is, if nothing else, tough as nails and supremely determined. The fact that he won two of his sets in tie-breaks is an indication that the mental resolve to stay in the moment and struggle for a result is reminiscent of the very pantheon of men he seeks to join and maybe even take for his own one day…maybe.

For all his technical prowess, hitting his strokes with massive power and direction on both sides, with consistency and steely resolve, one thing missing from his game that makes me wonder how long he’ll be able to continue generating the results he had in the 2009 US Open, is the plan B.

For some players a plan B is critical to any chance they have of winning on the ATP tour – Fabrice Santoro comes to mind. The man has about 100 different ways of winning a tennis match, and that’s because he has to – because his plan A isn’t quite good enough to take a majority of players on tour. There are others who demonstrate a plan B – Federer and Nadal are supremely adept at identifying what it is their opponents do worst and exploiting it mercilessly for the remainder of the match. It’s one of the (many) reasons both of them win so often.

But if you look at the final he played in Queens, I didn’t see much of a plan B from del Potro – in fact I saw more of plan A. That can come in handy at times – when the going got tough he doubled down and went for it, and it’s been a long time since anyone witnessed the level of power and direction on strokes in a grand slam final he displayed. Basically he knocked the cover off the ball when he had to, and it got him out of a lot of trouble, and put so much pressure on the great champion across the net, that he wilted in the 5th with the prospect of del Potro’s level staying where it was and his own Plan B not getting the job done.

But there have been other occasions where this strategy hasn’t worked very well for del Potro, and it is this element that appears to be missing from his game that makes me wonder how many more times we’ll see him bludgeoning his way to victory in a grand slam in the future. Injury questions aside, his rather disappointing failure to deliver a second point for Argentina in the Davis Cup Final of 2008 is an indication of what concerns me. There he wasn't playing his best tennis for the entire match, and while his injury certainly played a role, he did not appear to be in control of the match when it occurred and that failure probably cost Argentina the Cup. I have not doubt that Nalbandian would have taken care of business in a 5th rubber against Feliciano Lopez.

Often in tennis, longevity of success is mistaken for maintaining a very high level of play for a very long time – not so. The great ones don’t play well all the time, just often enough to win titles – in between moments of brilliance, the greats muddle their way through games and sets by doing whatever it takes to win – change the pace, come to net, find angles and serve their way out of trouble. Federer tried and failed, mostly because del Potro didn’t let him, but partly also because his serve lost his way in the sets that it counted. But you can probably count the number of times on one hand that's happened at that stage of a grand slam - usually by then Federer's plan B has taken the sting out of his opponents and eliminated any hope of their victory (Wimbledon 2007 and 2009 being the glaring exceptions).

Tennis is a game of individuals, and stars make the game what it is – so it’s normal that we should wonder aloud every time someone comes along and dethrones a great champion, if a star has just been born. But that is a question that cannot be answered until the end of next year. The case of Novak Djokovic is a good example of how the march towards greatness is fraught with changes of direction, pace and belief in the ultimate achievement of an objective.

By the final of the Australian Open in 2008, it looked like he had conquered the two men who had come to dominate the game so pervasively for the last 5 years. He won in Miami beating Nadal on the way in the quarterfinal, but in Montreal he beat them both, a feat that only Nalbandian and del Potro have able to repeat (the former did it twice in 2007 in Madrid and Paris, and the latter did it for the first time at a slam at the US Open - both Argentines I might add). His level was very high and he seemed to be playing consistently at a level that allowed him to challenge for all the grand slams.

But something happened to him along the way – the pressure he put on himself to perform, coupled with his own inability to consistently win when not playing well (as he did in defeating Federer in both Miami and Rome this year) cost him any chance of winning grand slams. He retired against a resurgent Roddick in Australia, and absolutely bagged it in Paris against a very good clay court player in Phillip Kohlschreiber. At Wimbledon he lost rather tamely to a Tommy Haas who was in the form of his life at the time and at the US Open, couldn’t muster up the twists and turns needed to derail Federer’s march to the final. Unable to hit him off the court like del Potro, Djokovic tried everything in his book to compete and did so far more impressively in 2009 than he had in 2008, despite actually winning a set last year. You never had the feeling that he could win that match, but in 2009 he had his chances and just couldn’t take them.

My concern for del Potro is that I don’t really see anything in his game beyond playing his socks off that would elicit a similar result in a slam, as long as two men named Federer and Nadal are still in form - and to me that is a recipe for a sophomore slump in the mold of Djokovic in 2009. That’s not to take anything away from his success, but I’ll need to see him find other ways to win matches, develop a plan B – because no matter how good his plan A is, there will always be days like his first round loss to Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon this year, where it’s not enough to get him through.

Unfortunately this does force me to reserve judgment on whether the game of men’s professional tennis has quite yet seen the birth of a new star or already witnessed the moment of his greatest brilliance.
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