The del Potro-Nadal Semifinal at the U.S. Open Is a Small Taste of What Could Have Been

Finally past wrist injuries that hamstrung his career, Juan Martin del Potro will have another chance to beat Rafael Nadal on a huge stage. 
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For most of Juan Martin del Potro’s career, his greatest nemesis was not another player. It was his own body. But over the last year, del Potro’s fragile wrists have given way to a more traditional adversary: Rafael Nadal.

It’s not a rivalry, exactly. But Nadal and del Potro, two of the tour’s most exhilarating competitors, have become familiar foes at Grand Slams.

On Friday, Nadal and del Potro will meet in the U.S. Open semifinal, marking their fourth meeting over the last five major tournaments. At last year’s U.S. Open, Nadal—the eventual champion—beat del Potro in a four-set semifinal. This year, the King of Clay eased by the 6'6" Argentinian in straight sets in the French Open semis and came out on top again in the Wimbledon quarters, this time rallying to win an epic five-set classic, 7-5, 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

It’s a small taste of what could have been. Nine years ago at the U.S. Open, when del Potro upset Nadal and Roger Federer to win his first (and only) major at age 20, he looked to all the world like an emergent force, a man who would join Novak Djokovic in disrupting Federer and Nadal’s joint hegemony over tennis. Instead, a devastating series of wrist injuries derailed del Potro’s rise just as he should have entered his prime.

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After a right wrist injury forced him to miss nine months in 2010, Del Potro barely played in 2014 and 2015 because of left wrist issues, returning in ’16 with a severely diminished backhand. We’ll never know how many majors del Potro, now 29, would have won had he remained healthy, but there’s a decent chance we’d remember this era of men’s tennis for its Big Five rather than the Big Four. 

Del Potro’s career is one counterfactual after another. Here’s one more: What if Nadal never had his 2017 renewal? We often discuss Nadal through the prism of Federer, but it’s likely del Potro would have been the greatest beneficiary. The Argentinian’s resurrection coincided with the Spaniard’s resurgence to world No. 1. Del Potro currently holds a career-high ranking of No. 3, but Nadal remains the one hurdle he hasn’t been able to clear in his quest for a second major title.

He’ll get another shot on Friday. This time, Nadal looks somewhat vulnerable, at least by his standards—Karen Khachanov nearly knocked him out in the third round, and Dominic Thiem heroically pushed the defending champion to the precipice of elimination in a five-set marathon that lasted nearly five hours. (Despite Thiem handing Rafa a 24-minute, first-set bagel!) That mileage could be crucial to Friday’s outcome.

Meanwhile, del Potro is playing as well as he has since returning to the circuit in ’16. “I don’t know if I’m playing my best tennis ever,” del Potro said after his four-set quarterfinal win over John Isner, “but I’m feeling good.”

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His forehand remains one of the tour’s most formidable weapons, and he’s serving remarkably well—against Isner, he won 89% of first-serve points and only faced three break points, saving them all. He also forced 11 break point opportunities, no small feat against Isner’s menacing serve. But crucially, del Potro’s backhand continues to improve: After his weak left wrist forced him to lean on his slice following his long injury layoff, del Potro is finally striking his two-hander with greater authority, giving him another weapon from the baseline. And adding that slice to his repertoire hasn’t hurt. Says Isner, “He’s added a really, really good slice backhand to his game. That’s one of the reasons he’s back to top five.”

Will all of that be enough on Friday? Dethroning Nadal won’t be easy, as Thiem can attest—and del Potro knows this better than anyone. But then again, nothing has ever come easy for the ’09 U.S. Open champion. If anyone’s up to the challenge, it’s him.