Long John Silver and I are collaborating to describe the effect Monday's shocking men's final will have on the future of tennis. For his reflections on the event, click here
Roger Federer was 13-0 in major finals against all opponents not named Rafa. He had won 41 consecutive matches against all comers under the New York skyline, and was pursuing a sixth consecutive US Open title, a feat not witnessed in 70 years.
He had also won 20 Grand Slam matches in a row, and 26 of 27 he’d played this year. He was 6-0 against his final round opponent.
These indicators all seemed to be pointing in the same direction, so the conclusion of today’s match may leave one with a feeling akin to opening a geography textbook and seeing that Mexico is actually north of the United States.
It surely leaves many tennis fans with questions, so let’s try to address a few of them here.
How good can Juan Martin del Potro be?
There’s no mistaking that we saw a new development out there today: Federer had faced big forehands before, from Andy Roddick to Fernando Gonzalez to Robin Soderling, and had proven that his superior defensive skills and low slice backhand could effectively neutralize them.
Today was the first time we saw a Big Forehand (aside from Nadal’s Super Topspin variety) that really hurt Federer. At the end of the final, del Potro had struck 37 forehand winners to the Swiss’ 20. This speaks not only to the pace of his shot (which was often reaching 110 mph according to some sources; a speed faster than some pros’ first serves) but also to his mobility.
Federer was able to exploit Roddick’s and Soderling’s movement through his service placement and various spins, but this time del Potro showed an ability to strike offensive groundstrokes from highly unconventional positions on court.
So, can del Potro be an all-time great?
He certainly appears to be an evolutionary leap in the sport; at three inches taller than Boris Becker and Pancho Gonzales, he’s the tallest major champion the sport has ever seen. Also, in a game rife with Big Forehands, his may be without peer on a day like Monday.
However, he lacks the complete game that we have seen among the GOAT candidates from Federer to Sampras to Laver. Those guys had careers that spanned decades and won majors in the double-digits because they were world-class in all areas, be it the groundstrokes, the serves, the movement, and the volleys. This gave them more options and gave their games a timeless quality
Del Potro isn’t phenomenal in all these departments; it’s just that the weapons he brought to the table in this event were bigger than what had been seen before him. Players who represent evolutionary leaps, hitting and/or serving harder and/or better than those who came before them can have highly distinguished careers: Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, and Andre Agassi are all good examples.
Those who lack dedication (like Marat Safin) or who see the game evolve past them (like Andy Roddick or Jim Courier) achieve less. The quality of del Potro’s career victories from here on really depends on how bad he wants it, and whether or not there’s another evolutionary leap while he’s active.
The second factor is unknowable; regarding the first, his career progression seems a lot closer to Connors than to Safin.
How bad is this news for Federer?
It’s not the best news he’s gotten this year, but remember that he was within points of closing out this match in four. As amazing as del Potro’s strokes were, Federer’s complete game was still nearly enough to contain him despite it not being his best day.
The comparison is already being made to Marat Safin’s victory over Pete Sampras in the 2000 Open final, in that the newly crowned Grand Slam king lost a shocker to a towering opponent. In that case, it ushered in a lengthy period of struggles for The Pistol, but this case is quite different.
Federer is two years younger than Sampras was in 2000 and hasn’t shown many signs that age is slowing him yet. As hard as the first half of the year was for him, he’s still gone 26-2 in the majors, and his two losses came in fifth set finals.
Anyone who thinks he can’t win more majors needs to pay closer attention.
Is del Potro the Nadal killer?
Much has been made of del Potro’s height and how it can counteract Rafael Nadal’s topspin. The fact that the Argentine just handed the Spaniard the most lopsided defeat of his Grand Slam career in the semis will be seen as evidence of this.
It doesn’t mean he can duplicate this feat on Parisian clay when Nadal is at full strength, though. The Argentine will threaten for the Roland Garros crown (and all other majors, with the possible exception of Wimbledon) in the future, but it’s definitely premature to anoint him the favorite in Nadal’s back yard.
Does the US Open need to start preparing for more multilingual acceptance speeches?
Absolutely. Caroline Wozniacki speaks fluent English and del Potro speaks it serviceably, but both have large non-English speaking constituencies they needed to address this weekend, and both Mary Jo Fernandez and Dick Enberg seemed unable to accept the idea.
The 1990s, in which an American won the Open six times out of 10 (and an Australian won two other times) are not coming back. More and more major champions are going to be coming from places where English is not widely spoken.
Roland Garros allows for acceptance speeches in multiple languages, and sooner or later the Open is going to have to do the same.