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Tower Totters But Survives: Juan Martin Del Potro Wins Epic Opener

Aug 28th 2013

Four long years had passed since Juan Martin Del Potro won the US Open, stunning Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in succession.  Wrist surgeries and depleted confidence have prevented Del Potro from claiming a second major, but he remains the only active man outside the Big Four to win a major in the last decade.

The Tower of Tandil announced an encouraging return to form this summer by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, where he played one of the year’s most thrilling ATP matches against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.  That five-set battle showcased the explosive shot-making from that title run at the US Open, and Del Potro consolidated it with a title in Washington.  He had won that tournament in 2009 as well, so hopes ran high until his body betrayed him in Canada and Cincinnati.  A back injury and an apparent recurrence of Del Potro’s wrist injury cautioned pundits against rating him too highly in New York.

Juan Martin Del Potro

Del Potro began his opening match against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez somewhat cautiously, as he often does.  The Argentine does not reach full speed until several games into a match, and he engaged in the sort of patient rallying more familiar with a slower surface.  Perhaps intimidated by Del Potro, his Spanish opponent conceded an opening break at love with several impatient errors.

Down came the rain just two games later, and a lengthy delay that might have stalled the momentum of a lesser player.  Del Potro returned from it with his mind still clear, though, and he completed his ongoing service game without difficulty.  But his opponent also started to settle into the match, perhaps aided by the absence of buzz in the stadium.

Garcia-Lopez has notched some remarkable hard-court victories in his career, defeating both Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.  He had won only one main-draw match on a hard court in the last 11 months, however, while enjoying more success on clay and grass.  Unlike the majority of Spaniards, he uses a one-handed backhand that Del Potro tried to break down with his sturdier two-hander.  That latter shot has been the barometer of the Argentine’s confidence and health over the last few years, so the full swings that he took on it late in the first set must have delighted his fans.

More effective for Garcia-Lopez is an inside-out forehand that started to strike its targets more precisely after the delay.  He could not sustain any pressure on Del Potro’s serve, however, which increased the pressure on his own service games.  That pressure told in the ninth game when Garcia-Lopez again pulled the trigger too early in rallies and gave Del Potro a set point.  The favorite seized it by stretching the Spaniard from side to side with cross-court groundstrokes, earning the chance to serve first in the second set. 

John Isner said after the Washington final that Del Potro looks astonishingly relaxed on court.  His loose-limbed gait between points today confirmed that impression, as did his deft touch on drop shots and volleys early in the second set.  The backhand-to-backhand rallies continued to tilt in his favor, while Garcia-Lopez struggled to redirect balls down the lines off the weight of Del Potro’s groundstrokes.  His options were limited against an opponent who both struck the ball harder and moved around the court more efficiently than he did.

Opening his shoulders with greater authority, Del Potro began to show off the various flavors of his forehand:  inside-in, inside-out, sharp angles cross-court, and the flat bomb down the line.  All of them tasted bitter to the underdog, who labored through deuce after deuce on his serve.  Midway through the second set, Del Potro had recorded more than twice as many winners as unforced errors.  A journeyman like Garcia-Lopez deserved credit for the gritty holds that allowed him to stay within range.

Eventually, though, the Spaniard’s backhand began to break down at a key juncture when he served at 3-4 in the second set.  Sensing how close a two-set lead loomed, Del Potro pounded his groundstrokes ever more furiously.  An epic game with multiple break points ensued, but Garcia-Lopez found just enough first serves at key moments to survive it.  Unfazed by the missed opportunity, Del Potro restored order on his serve again.

So doggedly had Garcia-Lopez competed in the second set that he deserved a tiebreak.  The players arrived there soon afterward, and a careless forehand by Del Potro handed an early minibreak to the Spaniard.  Flush with his success, Garcia-Lopez raced to triple set point.  He set up the first with an imposing serve, only to miss the routine forehand putaway.  But those nerves did not allow Del Potro to escape in the end, for he flung a backhand over the baseline to surrender the set.

Garcia-Lopez now found himself implausibly level in the match despite not having earned a break point on his opponent’s serve.  Some of the all-too-familiar pain in Del Potro’s wrist appeared to resurface early in the third set, when his backhand and returns of serve grew more tentative.  The former champion winced and glanced at his wrist between a few points. 

A spectacular point to start the fifth game seemed to reignite the Argentine’s energies.  He raced into his forehand corner to track down a Garcia-Lopez smash before eventually drawing an error.  Battling through punishing rallies in the long game that followed, Del Potro regained the initiative with his first break since the first set.

The former champion’s mood had lightened more than skies that still looked ominous.  No longer did he glance anxiously at his wrist.  In contrast, Garcia-Lopez now summoned the trainer to examine his left leg.  Taped on his thigh, he returned to the fray.  The hiatus might have disrupted Del Potro’s rhythm, for he immediately faced his first break point of the match.  Able to avoid that pitfall, he edged through his two tightest service games of the day.

Another rain delay intervened with Del Potro on the verge of serving for the third set, but the former champion regrouped to close out that crucial frame.  The match still hung in the balance, though, as Garcia-Lopez showed when he gamely secured his first break of the match early in the fourth set.  Curiously, the Spaniard continued to receive treatment on his leg during changeovers despite moving effectively during the action. 

With the match approaching the four-hour mark, Del Potro perhaps realized how much a five-setter in the opening round could drain his energy.  Although his body language still looked flat, he exploited emerging chinks in the groundstrokes of the tiring Garcia-Lopez to level the fourth set at 4-4

One of the most stirring groundstrokes of the match came two games later when Del Potro blasted a forehand rocket down the line to create a 0-30 hole.  Not intimidated by that display, Garcia-Lopez pinned his opponent far behind the baseline before unleashing a sparkling winner of his own.

In the fourth-set tiebreak, which began shortly, Del Potro asserted himself near the outset with imposing first serves.  The Garcia-Lopez serve had started to falter, meanwhile, as had the Spaniard’s vulnerable backhand.  Saving the first three match points against him, two on Del Potro’s serve, the plucky underdog surrendered on the fourth chance to end a match of 253 minutes, four sets, three rain delays, two tiebreaks, and one medical timeout. 

Although he advanced to the second round, Del Potro must have felt mixed emotions about his performance.  At certain stages, his movement and shot-making resembled the fearless power-hitter who plowed through the field in New York four years ago.  At other stages, his court positioning and body language echoed the passive uncertainty that has clouded his game during the intervening years.  The missed opportunities and narrow escapes of this four-hour epic left Del Potro looking much less an impressive contender than the other elite men who opened their tournaments before him.  He will need to sharpen his weapons for a second-round match against either Lleyton Hewitt or Brian Baker.