Can Juan Martin del Potro join Big Four at top of men's tennis?

Tuesday August 6th, 2013

Juan Martin del Potro is still the only men's player other than the Big Four to win a Slam since 2005.
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So much of it becomes a blur. Certain players and historians can recount specific rallies, shot by shot, from matches that took place decades ago, but most of us deal in generalities, a bit vague on the details.

But Juan Martin del Potro has a way of making things abundantly clear.

In this year's Wimbledon quarterfinals, del Potro took a horrific fall just five points into his match against David Ferrer, hyperextending a left knee that already was heavily taped and had been giving him problems for months. The towering Argentine not only fought through the pain, scoring a straight-set victory over one of the most dogged competitors in the game, but he also finished the match with an unforgettable flourish: a searing cross-court forehand and a down-the-line forehand struck on the dead run.

All of the great players own these shots, but there's nothing quite like del Potro's combination of reach, accuracy and raw power from acute angles. I'm sure I'm not the only one with razor-sharp visuals of those last two shots. They were astonishing to behold, and they characterized a storyline bound to gain momentum as the U.S. Open nears: Is this man ready to join the Big Four at the top of the men's game?

And if his fellow players feel that way, will the general public agree?

Heaven knows del Potro has come close. He seemed to be right on the verge when he knocked off Roger Federer to win the 2009 U.S. Open. That victory shines like a beacon on the Grand Slam ledger, the only time anyone other than Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray has won a major since Marat Safin's victory at the 2005 Australian Open.

Perhaps it's another set of visuals -- that cranky left knee, or del Potro's long-injured right elbow -- that gives one pause. Blessed with good health, del Potro might already have climbed the summit. He always seemed to have the wrong injury against the wrong player at exactly the wrong time.

Perhaps that's about to change. As the top seed at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., del Potro overpowered big-serving John Isner to win the tournament for the third time -- including 2009, in what proved to be a telling prelude to his U.S. Open triumph. He's at his best on hard courts, and ever so slowly, he's starting to make headway in his matchups with the elite.

Del Potro is just 3-9 against Djokovic, but two of those wins came at the 2012 London Olympics (for the bronze medal) and this year's Indian Wells event, where Djokovic had been 17-0 on the year. Then there was the epic semifinal at Wimbledon, surely one of the finest Centre Court matches ever staged, with Djokovic prevailing 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (6), 6-3 in a four-hour, 43-minute struggle.

"One of the most exciting matches I've ever played in my life," Djokovic said after the match, deeply respectful of del Potro's shotmaking and resolve. "I know that I have been pushed to the limit today."

Del Potro hasn't played Murray in a major since the 2008 U.S. Open (Murray won a four-set quarterfinal) and stands 2-5 overall against him. But del Potro won their last meeting, thanks to a decisive 6-1 verdict in the third set of this year's Indian Wells quarterfinals.

Similarly, del Potro's 4-13 record against Federer is somewhat deceiving, because they've played on even terms for more than a year. Federer had to come from two sets down to defeat a clearly hobbled del Potro in last year's French Open quarterfinals. Del Potro's left knee had been an issue throughout, requiring medical treatment at one point.

"It's incredible that he finished the match," Federer said. "He fought like a hero."

The two men staged perhaps the most compelling match of the London Olympics, with Federer winning 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 in the semifinals. But del Potro has won their two most recent matches -- at the Swiss Indoors and the ATP World Tour Finals in London, both last year. With those wins, del Potro became the first player since Lleyton Hewitt (2002) to defeat Federer in two straight indoor events.

It's much more than numbers, though, when it comes to del Potro and his appeal. His easygoing nature makes him one of the most widely admired players in the locker room, and he's become quite the entertainer on court. When he's locked in a match that has everyone spellbound, he makes it quite clear that he's enjoying it as much as anyone.

In the second set against Djokovic at Wimbledon, one of del Potro's retrieval efforts carried him right into the stands, where he stood on a green wall and high-fived a spectator. Flat on his back after diving for a volley, he jokingly waved his hands as if to say, "Can't take much more of this." The memorable exchanges had the two men smiling and casting glances of admiration, and at one point del Potro walked around the net for a brief chat, even yanking at the zipper on Djokovic's shirt.

After nearly five hours in a match that didn't go his way, del Potro declared it "unbelievable to watch," knowing it had been something most extraordinary. And here was another fine del Potro moment: sinking to his knees and breaking into tears after defeating Djokovic for the Olympic bronze, Argentina's first medal of those Games.

While del Potro is doing everything possible to get match-tough for the U.S. Open, things have been relatively quiet for the Big Four. Before this week's Rogers Cup in Montreal, Federer had been the only one to compete since Wimbledon. Nadal has pronounced himself fit for the Rogers Cup, although he could certainly do without the recent comments from Djokovic's father, Srdjan, who told a Serbian newspaper, "He was Novak's best friend when [Nadal] was winning. When things changed, they were no longer friends. This is not sport." Nadal responded that Djokovic should have a little talk with his father because "we've never had a problem."

The senior Djokovic didn't stop with Nadal, saying of Federer, "He is perhaps still the best tennis player in history, but as a man he's the opposite. [In 2006 Federer] realized that [Djokovic] was his successor and was trying to disparage him in every way. Novak's success is an amazing thing and something that Federer cannot understand."

Short-version take from here: Djokovic wasn't the same man back then. He was a bit of a hypochondriac, known to bail out of a match with seemingly minor ailments, and Federer once had to tell Djokovic's box to "be quiet" because they were making too much of a racket during play. If Djokovic needed a bit of a reprimand at that time, Federer was the perfect man for the job. But that's ancient history in the light of Djokovic's remarkable transformation, and it's nothing more than a very healthy rivalry at this point.

Federer, surely, has more relevant matters to attend. He withdrew from the Montreal event because of lingering back problems, and he's trying to sort out his transition from a 90-square-inch racket frame to a 98-square-inch version. Recent losses to No. 114 Federico Delbonis (German Tennis Championships) and No. 55 Daniel Brands (Swiss Open) suggest that this bow to modern technology is very much a work in progress. And it was interesting to read Mary Carillo's comments in a conversation she had with historian/Tennis columnist Steve Flink.

"Clearly, he's looking for some kind of technological advantage that he feels needs to be gained at this stage of career," Carillo said. "That's a silent statement, isn't it? If you're straining to get to the ball and perhaps not hitting as cleanly, and you're not behind every shot the way you normally are, you're going to need a little bit of help."

Carillo also said, though, that "I wouldn't be surprised if he gave it another couple of weeks and then went back to his old racket. Honestly, I think if his back gets better in the coming weeks, he'll get quicker and won't feel the need for this bigger racket head. It's hard to change from something that has been an extension of your arm pretty much for your whole career."

Finally, there is Murray, a man finally at peace after his titanic breakthrough at Wimbledon. He recently told The Daily Mail that after a hectic few days at home, unable to find a moment's privacy, he stopped by the All England Club a few days afterward.

"There was absolutely nobody there. It's strange, but it was the quietest place I could go," he said. "I went and sat on the Centre Court, where they were about to rip it up and re-seed it. I just sat there on my own, reflecting; that was probably the coolest experience."

In a setting that could not be more different -- the noisy, vibrant cauldron of the U.S. Open -- del Potro will seek his own brand of peace. Adding a face to the men's Mount Rushmore? That sounds a bit unrealistic. Del Potro is merely looking to get in the conversation. There will be no shortage of encouragement for this most unforgettable player.

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