By Matt Roberts
Ten days ago, the tennis world suddenly got all excited about the World No. 1042. On the surface, such interest was curious, even for February – a rare period of relative peace in a clustered calendar. But this was no journeyman occupying such a lowly spot, this was a grand slam champion.
After playing just a handful of matches in over two years, Juan Martin Del Potro made his eagerly-anticipated return to action at the ATP 250 event at Delray Beach. A few years ago, the tall Argentinian was a semi-regular gate-crasher of the Big Four party. His thunderbolt forehands propelled him to victory at the 2009 US Open, where he brutally disposed of Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals before shocking a peak-level Federer to win the title. He remains the only man not named Nadal or Djokovic to beat the Swiss great in a grand slam final.
But shortly after that career-defining moment, his injury struggles began. In total, he’s had four operations on his bothersome wrist tendons and missed over three years of action. Herein lies an interesting paradox. While Del Potro’s legacy and achievements have undoubtedly been harmed by his extended lay-offs, his popularity has actually risen in a true case of ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’. In his absence, his eye-catching brand of tennis and charisma have been sorely missed, particularly in an era where a number of the game’s challengers – Nishikori, Gasquet, Berdych – offer little to arouse enthusiasm and appear to lack the belief that they can beat the best.
There can be no doubt that having Del Potro back is good for the game’s image. South Americans approach sport with an unmatched, guileless passion, bringing excess noise and energy to arenas. With both men’s and women’s tennis currently governed by Europeans, Serena Williams aside, marketing the sport in the Americas becomes a whole lot easier with ‘Delpo’ back in the picture.
Del Potro has returned to a different ATP World Tour. When asked to give his opinion on John-Patrick Smith, his second round opponent in Florida last week, Del Potro replied “I don’t know him. I’ve been at home on the couch watching The Simpsons for two years.” It was a typically charming response but, in truth, the players at the top of the game remain very much the same.
However, back in 2012-13, men’s tennis was an oligarchy with the occasional challenger. Now it’s a merciless dictatorship with Djokovic hoovering up title after title. The Serb’s biggest two rivals are Murray and Federer. But there is a veritable ocean separating Djokovic from those two, both in terms of ranking points and consistent level of play.
Such unrelenting dominance has cast an unfortunate sense of inevitability over the top tier of tournaments, so much so that the game needs a lift.
Del Potro’s return in Florida was no more than a few baby steps on the long road to recovery. His backhand was predominantly sliced and pushed, with his preferred double-hander used sparingly – a sure sign that his tender wrist is still negatively impacting his game. A comeback is always two-pronged, physical and mental. His injury may be fully cured, but he must learn to trust his body again. A run to the semi-final at Delray Beach was impressive but hardly ground-breaking. It certainly won’t have caused Djokovic to tremble convulsively. But he might just have flinched.
Stan Wawrinka produced the template for toppling Djokovic over five sets in last year’s Roland Garros final: rip winners for three hours. It’s hardly a reliable formula and no one’s managed to replicate it since. But if anyone can, it could just be a fully-fit Del Potro.
Photograph: Marianne Bevis via Flickr