Tied at one set all, Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych were exchanging long rallies, as darkness loomed over Court Suzanne Lenglen during the middle Sunday of the 2012 French Open.
Del Potro won the pivotal third set 6-3 and play was suspended as it was well past 9 p.m. local time. The next day Del Potro came out the stronger player, and after exchanging breaks, broke Berdych again at love during the 12th game to book himself in the quarterfinals for the second time in his career in Paris with a 7-6 (6), 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory.
Overall, the 2012 season was a success for both top 10 players, each making comebacks of sorts, with Del Potro recovering from his 2010 wrist injury and continuing to improve after a rebuilding 2011 season, and Berdych overcoming a summer slump, losing early at Wimbledon and the Olympics, to reaching “Super Saturday” at the US Open.
Berdych and Del Potro also have the all-around game to take out the favorites in major tournaments, and Del Potro has gone a step further because of his Grand Slam title, the 2009 US Open.
The big question for the 2013 is, which one of these players can disrupt the "Big Four" order?
Case for Berdych
The talented and sometimes controversial Czech (see this year’s Australian Open, or his 2006 Rafael Nadal incident in Madrid) has the game to outplay the world’s best with his massive serve and forehand. His biggest career highlights include a semifinal at the 2010 French Open, taking out Roger Federer at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships, and again at this year’s US Open. In both of those meetings, Federer seemed out of sorts, not matching the level of play Berdych was producing.
However, Berdych doesn’t have the same mental strength displayed by the top of the men’s game. That was apparent in his match against Andy Murray on a very windy day at the US Open. Berdych never looked comfortable out on Arthur Ashe Stadium, and even after securing the first set, looked angry at the weather conditions which made it difficult to hit through the court. Murray, on the other hand, dealt with the situation loads better, learning to adapt his play to the conditions, and not against it. This setback is one of the main reasons for Berdych’s shortcomings in his career.
Case for Del Potro
Del Potro, unlike Berdych, has tasted victory in a Slam, beating Nadal and Federer back-to-back to claim the US Open. In both of those matches, Del Potro dominated from the baseline and forced errors from the world's best.
Unfortunately for Del Potro, he never got the chance to back up his 2009 success, as 2010 was a short season due to wrist surgery. He spent all last year and most of this year re-establishing himself in the top 10.
However, this year has been successful for the Argentine, playing his best tennis in Paris, the Olympics and New York. His quarterfinal match against Novak Djokovic at the US Open showed his 2009 level, playing unbelievable points against one of the best defenders in the game. Although Djokovic came out the victor, Del Potro made a statement that night, proving he belongs back in the Grand Slam mix.
On the flip side, his main weakness is his health. At Roland Garros, he was up two sets to love against Federer before a nagging knee injury crept into his game and he lost in five sets. And during Davis Cup play a couple weeks ago, he re-injured the same wrist he had surgery on in 2010, forcing him to pull out of Sunday’s singles competition, after ignoring the doctor’s orders to not play at all in the Davis Cup semifinals.
Looking ahead, it’s hard to not pick Del Potro next season due to his growth in the previous two seasons. Berdych, on the other hand, hasn’t matched his 2010 season until this past month in New York. He’s spotty and unpredictable. Just when you think he’ll strike, he loses early, like at this year’s Olympics. Berdych has shown that beating Federer at a Slam doesn't guarantee the title, and he needs good results back-to-back if he wants to make a bigger impact in the men's game.
Del Potro has the confidence, and should he stay healthy, seems like the strongest player outside the top five to disrupt the "Big Four."