Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Juan Martin Del Potro: Plateau or Plateau Hopping?

The youngest player in the ATP top-10 knows how to have a good summer. While most kids his age are at the beach, on soul-searching backpacking adventures across Europe, or hanging out with old friends from High School in their home towns, the 20-year-old Argentine has a different idea of what the perfect summer should be like.

Last year, his idea of the perfect summer was to become the first player to ever win his first four tournaments on the ATP tour consecutively. In an improbable climb up the rankings, Del Potro, who was ranked No. 65 after Wimbledon last year, reeled off four ATP tournament victories and found himself ranked 17th and carrying a 19 match winning streak as he headed for the U.S. Open.

Just for good measure he added 4 more wins to the tally before he finally succumbed to eventual finalist Andy Murray in a closely contested 4-set thriller in Flushing Meadows.

Fast forward to nearly one year later, and the 6'6" Del Potro looks like he may be ready for some more summer fun.

After successfully defending his title at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in D.C. on Sunday against a rejuvenated Andy Roddick, the Argentine will try to bolster his reputation as "Mr. August" amongst star-studded fields in Montreal and Cincinnati over the next two weeks.

Del Potro's ranking was not high enough for him to gain entry to the masters events at the end of the summer last year, but this year Del Potro, currently ranked No. 6, will have to face much stiffer competition in the weeks prior to the U.S. Open.

After making the quarters or better of three consecutive Grand-Slam events (2008 U.S. Open, 2009 Australian Open, 2009 French Open) Del Potro suffered a setback on the grass at Wimbledon, losing in the second round to ex-champion Lleyton Hewitt.

Judging from Sunday's results, and the fact that he avenged his loss to Hewitt by beating him in D.C, the Wimbledon setback doesn't appear to be affecting his confidence at all.

After taking the rest of July off, the Tandil native appears to be ready to embrace the fast-paced style of tennis that is played his favorite surface. While Del Potro looked fatigued at times in the oppressive D.C. heat last week (temps at 120 on court during the match, and high humidity), it was hard not to notice just how deadly he can be on the hard courts.

His serve, now topping out close to 140, has become one of the most feared in the sport. His ground strokes are also revered by the players on tour, and he is regularly mentioned in the same breath as other hard hitters such as Soderling and Gonzalez. His movement, considering the fact that he is listed as 6'6" but rumored by many to be even taller, is exceptional as well.

There doesn't seem to be much Del Potro can't do.

But a closer look at his record reveals some unfinished business. While Del Potro has managed victories against Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray in his last contests with each, he's still come up empty against both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer (0-3 vs. Djokovic, and 0-6 vs. Federer). With a career record of 10-25 against the top-10, it is clear that Del Potro still has some tasks to check from his list of things to do.

After being so close to victory against Federer at Roland Garros, then squandering a two sets to one lead, Del Potro can at least take away the fact that he took his first two sets off the worlds No. 1. He was much maligned for his straight set tanking against Federer in the Australian Open where he didn't win a single game in the last two sets, and even though he didn't finish the job in Paris, the experience he gained will no doubt bolster his confidence going forward.

At a time where most cameras are focused on Federer, Nadal, and to a lesser degree, Murray, the time might be ripe for Juan Martin to create a little buzz of his own.

If he wants to avoid having to reminisce about the summer of 2008 for the rest of his career, he'll have to make that next great leap and prove that he can beat the top-10 on a consistent basis. He'll have to put all those high powered shots together into a cohesive and focused brand of tennis, and most of all, he'll have to do it as a known threat, rather than the virtual unknown that he was last summer.

He's got the game to do it, and he's got the heart as well. But does he have the stamina?

If there is one question about Del Potro it would have to be ability to deal with the rigors of 5-set matches. He's a ferocious competitor on the court, but there are times where he seems to lose steam on the court. He was able to survive against Roddick on Sunday in Melbourne-like conditions, but he had to play high risk tennis to do so. High risk tennis is Del Potro's calling card, but even for him there is a time and a place for it. If Mr. August wants to become Mr. September this year, he doesn't have to sprint to his chair between change overs like Agassi did in the 1999 U.S. Open final, but crawling there is not an option either.

While 2008 was a relatively easy hill to climb for Juan Martin, 2009 will be more a more menacing mountain. If 2008 was a day hike, 2009 will be a trek. Leaving the lower half of the top-50 in his rear view mirror proved to be as easy as drinking beers with old friends for Del Potro, but this year's summer promises to be a much more difficult test.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The 5 Most Beautiful Shots in Men's Tennis

Albert Camus once said "Beauty is unbearable. It drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time."

I don't think he was thinking of Roger Federer's overhead smash when he said it, but there is no doubt about the fact that Federer's smash, and the other four shots featured in this piece, do provide tennis fans with a glimpse of an eternity that we'd like to prolong.

It would be even better if we could imitate it, but that is highly unlikely.

While style points don't count on the scoreboard, they do play on the heart strings. Tennis is a brutally competitive sport, and the mental aspects of it are nothing short of grueling. Yet at the sports very essence there is always a prevailing grace. It is what draws us to the sport, and it is what we marvel at when we watch, either on television or in person.

Every professional has beautiful game. Go to a grand-slam during the first week and walk around the practice courts — it's hard to find a player who doesn't blow your mind with the amazing power and grace with which he hits the ball. But there are some who quite clearly have had their strokes sculpted by a higher power.

These are the ones whose strokes who are worthy of the top 5.

1. Roger Federer's half-volleys - Is there anything cooler than the world's best player casually flicking away a 100 mph laser as his opponents stands on the other side of the net looking more like a statue or robot than a tennis player? Man, Federer can make the greatest players of his generation look like buffoons, can't he?

2. Rafael Nadal's inside-out forehand - This shot is a revolution unto itself. The way that Nadal has made the forehand a total body experience, putting every ounce of his energy into the shot, is just unbelievable. With the vicious spin that Nadal manages to put on the ball, he is able to clear the net easily and also bring the ball down before it gets to the baseline, enabling him to create and employ near impossible angles that can leave even the most enthused opponent disillusioned.

3. Andy Murray's serve - There are many elements to a good tennis serve, and Murray has them all. His rhythm and tempo are musical, and his body is synced up so perfectly to his toss, with his back leg sliding toward the front just in time to join it in a powerful thrust up and over the ball and into the court. His knee bend and back arch are pronounced, and the circle and snap of his racquet arm and wrist put the finishing touches on what is becoming one of the most lethal serves in all of tennis.

4. The Roger Federer Overhead Smash - Ah, yes, there is nothing more beautiful than pure genius summoned instinctively from the soul. Federer hits this shot so beautifully, and so accurately — he doesn't just blast away like most guys, instead he picks his spot and hits with side spin to make it even more effective — that it belongs in a museum rather than on a tennis court.

5. Roger Federer's one-handed backhand - I feel bad for the rest of the players, but when it comes to beauty and elegance on the tennis court, nobody can compete with the Swiss maestro. This shot has been questioned by many who feel it is inadequate when it comes to dealing with the high bounce that comes from his nemesis Rafa Nadal's ground strokes. This may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that Federer's backhand is head and shoulders above the rest in the field. The way he whips his wrist as he comes over the ball with tremendous speed and lift, and the gorgeous pose that he ends up in after the follow through are pure poetry.

When it comes to beauty, I do realize that it's in the eye of the beholder. No two shots are alike and they are all pretty amazing. Drop me a line and tell me what your top 5 are.