It's a little ironic to witness a giant in the midst of giant-slaying. Watching Juan Martin Del Potro play this week in Indian Wells has been just that.
While the media has swirled incessantly around Rafael Nadal's show-stopping comeback to the hardcourts after seven months away from tennis due to injury, Del Potro was busy making quiet swells on his side of the draw, eliminating Andy Murray in the quarterfinals in three sets before shocking World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on Saturday afternoon in the semis, a contest which ended Djoker's 22-match win streak.
Now, Nadal will face off against an unlikely contender in Del Potro in the 2013 Indian Wells Masters 1000 final on Sunday. Albeit it isn't a twist finale, but it definitely wasn't in the script, either.
Though Del Potro's run to the finals isn't a stunner given his impressive credentials, the notion of reaching the title bout against Nadal was certainly not the expected Sunday matchup (for either player in reality).
Even more interestingly, however, is what Del Potro is truly capable of come 2:00 pm PST (5:00 pm EST) in California: after never completely regaining his form of old since a 12-month injury break two years ago, the 24-year-old has finally retooled his game to be bigger and better than it ever was before.
Dr. Gentle And Mr. Hard-Hitter
Nicknamed affectionately as the Tower of Tandil by locals of his native Argentina, there is something inherently fragile-looking about the lanky Del Potro, who is known for his kind reservations off the court and his supersonic forehand on it.
Since returning to tennis after a 2010 wrist injury, we saw the lumbering 6'6'' Argentinian play the sport with our eyes half-covered and our faces knotted into tentative winces, waiting for his wrist to sprain, his chicken legs to snap or his bony hips to crack.
Without headline-making wins under his belt since his pummeling of Nadal and Roger Federer at the final weekend of the 2009 U.S. Open—his sole Grand Slam title—the sight of Del Potro on the full stretch as he lunged for passing shots became somewhat of an apprehensive task.
But for the first time in months, that haunting trepidation is subsided. The former World No. 5 Del Potro, now ranked seventh in the world after working his way back up the rankings throughout 2011 and 2012 (at his lowest, he had fallen below the 200th spot), has played impassioned and towering tennis this past week.
Cracking forehands like no one's business, and moving incredibly gingerly given his massive frame, Del Potro has been the real story of the 2013 Indian Wells Masters because his arrival to this stage was unforeseen; like a much (much) larger Bilbo Baggins, he is the definitive unexpected hero.
Del Potro has caught fire quickly in nearly all facets of his game. Aside from his booming groundstrokes and impeccable serve, the Argentine has impressed in ways not necessarily recognized by tennis enthusiasts as a part of his repertoire.
Is Del Potro playing his best tennis since 2009?
Looking at break points saved, Delpo defended a combined 9-of-13 in his matches against Murray and Djokovic. That 70 percent rate is starkly contrasted by Djokovic and Murray's collective 60 percent with 14-of-23 break points saved.
Not only was Del Potro more efficient at avoiding break points, but he was also highly effective at creating them, as his return game has been sharper than Uma Thurman's revenge-stained katana.
Perhaps the most encouraging fact for fans of the One-Slam Wonder is his remarkable consistency this week. In his match against Djokovic, Del Potro won the vast majority of rallies that extended 20 shots, a statistic that is provocative in itself given Nole's inhuman flexibility and defense of the court.
Hitting fewer unforced errors in his quarterfinal and semifinal matches than both of his opponents, his form is mightily promising: if he is able to sustain this medley of depth, placement, pace and consistency, Del Potro may be on the upswing of a very positive run, the start of which takes place right here in California.
Do Or Do Not, There Is No Try
First uttered by the great Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, perhaps these are wise words to live by. For Del Potro, they are certainly words that he has taken to heart.
When given the opportunity to seize momentum in his matches in Indian Wells, Delpo has risen to the occasion. In the crucial points he hadn't converted, the Argentine had often hit a near-winner that barely missed.
Consequently, Del Potro has remained the master of his own fate as he has been controlling every rally with penetrating forehands and powerful forward momentum.
The most significant example can be seen in Delpo's comeback from 0-3 down against Djokovic in the third and final set of their semifinal match.
Without panic, Juan Martin methodically worked his way into Djokovic's following service game, eventually gaining the break back with continual pressure and, most principally, strong mental presence.
Taking all of this into account, Del Potro has immense potential to stop Rafa in his tracks. Because Delpo regularly hits his groundstrokes with exceptional depth and speed, Nadal may find himself rushed to complete his elaborate follow-through motion when attempting to take an advantageous position in the court, particularly on the forehand side.
While Nadal has been rapidly improving to a highly elite level, the Spaniard remains susceptible to being blown off the court: throughout the week, we have seen several mistimings from Rafa off of the baseline when beaten with pace, a sight which is undoubtedly a result of not having played on the tour for so long.
Del Potro will have the ability to exploit this weakness, and should do so by utilizing this Star Wars-derived mentality.
La Torre De Tandil vs. El Rey De Tierra
With their head-to-head at 7-3 in favor of Rafa—but an even 3-3 split on hard courts, specifically—and given Nadal's career record at any Masters 1000 level tournament, he is the clear favorite to win in Sunday's final.
If anything, this should rally the gentle giant Delpo, as he has entered battle fearlessly twice before as the dark horse, and has trotted his way, however laboriously, to the finish line.
Given that, the biggest cause for concern for Del Potro will be his presumably dwindling fuel tank. After intensely physical back-to-back contests that each lasted over two and a half hours in blisteringly hot conditions, stamina will be the Argentinian's kryptonite if he is to have one.
The advantage for Del Potro, even if he's fumbling around with fatigue, is that he's refined his inside-out forehand down to an utter science, creating angles that demoralize opponents and offset their drive, ultimately saving himself from the worry of having to scurry. Nadal better watch out for this superb shot, because it will both take time away from the Spaniard as well as play directly into Delpo's most potent strength.
When all is said and done, a Nadal and Del Potro matchup, though unanticipated, is easily something to behold. Fantastic shot-making, almighty serving, and full-fledged determination pledge to make this finals encounter a fresh and enticing one.
Whether we see an untouched upon rivalry blossoming from this first true seedling, or whether it instead dries and wilts once the 2013 Indian Wells final has passed, at this moment we can welcome its mere novelty.
To put it best, a writer long ago once said, "The best things in life are unexpected...because there were no expectations."