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The Man of Tandil

Juan Martin del Potro on a Hot Streak at Indian Wells.

By 3.18.13

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He did not win the BNP Paribas Open, but Juan Martin del Potro stole the show at Indian Wells, the first of the year’s arduous hard court tournaments, with a superb display of endurance and concentration in his semi-final victory over Novak Djokovic.

It is of course, as they say, too soon to tell. There is the winter hard court season to finish and the European clay season and the nearly back-to-back slams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and the grueling North American summer hard court season. It is pointless to predict anything. But it is interesting that after a year during which the established “big four” champions, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray, each won a slam (in that order), the one player most often mentioned as the one among the others in the top ten who might break through is the one who very nearly did exactly that at the event some observers are calling “the fifth slam.”

Money- and attendance-wise, Indian Wells is certainly getting up there. Its Number One Stadium is the biggest theater in tennis after Flushing Meadows’ Arthur Ashe Stadium, which in fact may be one of the reasons the USTA is thinking seriously of refurbishing its legendary space in Queens, N.Y. This could be a serious mistake, but it is a subject for another day. The Masters 1000 at Indian Wells is exceeding its sponsors’ expectations.

The return of Rafa Nadal to hard court competition, following an absence of nearly a year due to an injury to his left knee, provided instant drama, and the man of Majorca did not disappoint, playing magnificently throughout, notably against his friend and rival Roger Federer, whom he crushed mercilessly in a two-set quarter-final match. But while Nadal was affirmatively answering the question of whether he was back in strong enough form to make a run for the number one ranking that he and Federer have conceded to Novak Djokovic for the past two years, “Delpo” was the real surprise, as he fought his way through quarters and semis, tough three-setters each time in temperatures that hit the high 90s.

Even on TV, it became clear during the great match between del Potro and Murray that the kind and gentlemanly giant from Tandil was playing with that combination of hunger and steadiness that often has eluded him since his spectacular win -- as a teenager -- over Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open. Murray is an uncommonly shrewd player, who mixes up his strokes and strategies as no one in the contemporary game save Roger Federer. Delpo by contrast is a steady baseline and cross-court hitter and a big server. To overcome Murray’s tricks and brilliance, he had to above all keep his cool. Which he did, and it was the mercurial and temperamental Scot who finally lost it, along with the match, double faulting his last serve while his opponent faced him down like a rock.

The match against Djokovic, winner of the Australian Open for the third time in a row last January and on a 21-match winning streak, was something entirely different, and to many observers even more dramatic. The world number one has developed defensive-aggression into a supreme art. There is simply nothing Novak Djokovic cannot hit back to you as hard or harder than you hit it to him. He returns with equal power from either side of the court and he goes after almost everything -- and usually reaches it. Against this kind of mastery, as opposed to overwhelming a superior tactician such as Murray, del Potro had to play like the classic returner, René Lacoste -- “one more time than your opponent.” It sounds simple. But the rallies lasting 20 shots and more were breathtaking -- even on TV.

The three set match against Nole obviously took something out of him, and against a Nadal who seemed to be going from strength to strength throughout the tournament, Delpo finally wilted. But it was a brave and heroic wilt, which let you believe during the first half of the match that the upset was really going to take place. Nadal was, incredibly enough, it seemed, behind 0-3 in the second set, having lost the first 4-6. Then he put on a display of that determination that seems at times to border on fury and he took control, dictating the angles and the lengths of the rallies. It remained close (6-3, 6-4), and Juan Martin left the court, quite rightly, with his head high.

Predictions are fickle, but why not expect this to be a fine season. The women too are in fine form, with Caroline Wozniacki, for example, finally getting her act together and having a fine run before falling in the final to a Maria Sharapova who was, for her part, at the top of her form. And in doubles the mighty Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, took the trophy and, with it, completed their record of winning every single tournament of note in the world at least once.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.