Juan Martin del Potro looked a dream against a slow-starting Janko Tipsarevic in the ATP World Tour Finals, where he is competing as the No. 7 ranked player in the world.
With a first serve percentage of 88 percent, he closed out the first set 6-0. And although Tipsarevic located his game in the second set and played some great points, an early break ensured that the Argentine took that set with a score of 6-4, and with it the match.
Even though Del Potro lost his first contest of the tournament in a close three-setter with David Ferrer, this win gives the 2009 U.S. Open champion a chance at Monday's final, depending on the outcome of the next few matches.
Saturday he meets Roger Federer. The Swiss champion is a six-time winner of this event, and is capping off a stellar year in which he regained the No. 1 ranking and then set a new record for the longest stay at the top. However, his 6’6” Argentine competitor is on something of a roll himself.
Taking back-to-back titles last month in both Vienna and Basel, and taking the Basel title from Federer in a thrilling match with two tiebreaks, he ended the Swiss's hope for a sixth title in his home tournament.
Federer had won his previous meetings with the Argentine this year, including their epic London Olympics semifinal where Federer survived the longest match in Olympic history, which ended with a score of 3-6, 7-6, 19-17. At four hours and 26 minutes it stands also as the longest three-set singles match in the open era. The final set alone contained two hours and 43 minutes of play.
Federer, no doubt pushed to the limit during that contest, lost the gold medal match to an on-form Andy Murray. Meanwhile, the Argentine champion had enough stamina to overpower Novak Djokovic and claim the bronze medal for Argentina. This triumph marked Juan Martin's return to his previous form that had made him the youngest player ranked in the top ten in both 2008 and 2009.
After Del Potro won the 2009 U.S. Open and appeared in the ATP finals the same year, taking the second-place prize when Federer won the title, he reached a career high of No. 4 in the world. It looked like he was on a one-way road to the top.
Unfortunately a wrist injury and subsequent surgery derailed his career, and his ranking dropped to No. 485, a serious disappointment after such a promising start. The long climb back saw him capture two titles in 2011 and also be named the "ATP comeback player of the year", finishing 2011 ranked No. 11.
This year he has three titles and the Olympic bronze medal and has raised his ranking a few more points to No. 7.
Is he set to rise further?
With a big serve and a power forehand, few players hit a harder ball than Del Potro. And when his game is on, brutal shot-making sees him find one corner and then the other, running his opponent, while he covers his side of the court with some ease thanks to his tremendous reach. He also possesses an agility unusual for his tremendous size.
Not to mention his mental game—he is one of the calmest and most self-composed players on the circuit.
He comes out of Tandil, an Argentine town south of Buenos Aires with a population of 110,000—also the hometown of world No. 12 Juan Monaco and former player Mariano Zabaleta.
Reportedly, at the local club, young players are taught strict manners for on-court behavior. It seems to have worked in Juan Martin's case. (He may have taken tennis manners to new heights this year when he stopped his U.S. Open match with Djokovic to ensure safe passage for a moth trapped on his side of the court.)
Can Juan Martin del Potro break into the big four?
When he is not tending to stray wildlife, he puts his energy into defeating his opponents. Federer described the 2009 U.S. Open final as one of the biggest losses of his career.
And after the Olympic record breaker Federer said this about his opponent, "Juan Martin did so well to hang in there...It was very physical at the end and so mental. I feel horrible for Juan Martin, but he can be very proud."
And now that they are slated to meet again Saturday to decide the winner of their group in the ATP finals, this should also prove to be a great encounter. Both favor an indoor court. And both are on top of their game.
Del Potro was at the center of the international stage in 2009 when he beat Rafael Nadal and Federer in succession to win a grand slam trophy—will we see him there again?
Being only 24 years old, with the natural talent he possesses, and the ability to keep himself focused on court, he could be the most formidable opponent the big four face in the foreseeable future.
As long he can stay injury-free, he has all the components for the top game, and proof he can play it under pressure.
It will be great to see more of him in 2013—a Grand Slam champion, whose style and attitude add a lot to the game of tennis.