Creature vs. Creature: Rafael Nadal Will Turn the Tide vs. Del Potro

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IOctober 8, 2009

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 13:  Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during the Men�s Singles Semifinal match against Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina on day fourteen of the 2009 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 13, 2009 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)


It is an exciting time to be a tennis fan. The days of the duopoly of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are long gone, with the arrival of Novak Djokovic in 2007, and Andy Murray in 2008. However, a certain giant from Tandil is capturing the headlines these days.

The fact that Juan Martin del Potro won a major was not that surprising—he had shown the promise right from late 2008—but the manner of his victories in the last two matches was spectacular. Apart from the initial hiccup in the final, he was fearless with his shots throughout those two days and the level of shot making shows that he is here to stay for the time to come.

Nadal, on the other hand, is at a critical juncture of his career. After starting the year in fine fashion at the Australian Open, he has been nursing injuries, whether in the knees, or the abdomen. After failing to even participate in the Wimbledon, he only looked partially fit during the Open as he lost a ridiculously one-sided semi-final to the eventual champion del Potro.

Nadal will carefully balance his schedule to play the right amount of matches to keep his momentum going—he is much more confident after having many wins under his belt—at the cost of not over exerting himself too much. He will also be wondering of defining new game plans against del Potro, someone he will have to face a lot more in the coming months.

The Spaniard has always thrived under adversity, and this temporary debacle against the Argentine would be no different. He has the determination, talent, skill, and a great coach in Toni Nadal to enable him to turn the tide, but antiMatter believes that del Potro will continue to trouble Nadal.


The Story So Far

It is not difficult to gauge how the rivalry has shaped up. Del Potro was still finding his feet in professional tennis in '07 and '08, when Rafa was at the peak of his prowess as a clay monster, grass court expert and decent on hard courts. No wonder del Potro failed to win a set against the Spaniard in their first four occasions when the killer blow happened.

Del Potro survived a close match against Nadal in Miami, winning the match in the deciding set tie-breaker, and since then it has been a one way traffic as Nadal has failed to win a set against this 6'6" guy. In fact, the last four sets reveal a sorry story for Nadal with the score line of 1-6, 2-6, 2-6 and 2-6.

The momentum may have shifted with del Potro, but Nadal is not that deep in water as it may seem. Miami was the last tournament of a long hard court season comprising of Doha, Australian Open, Rotterdam, Davis Cup and Indian Wells, and Nadal's taped knees were starting to oppose his heart to go down and drill in the heat and humidity of Miami.

At Montreal, he was clearly out of match practice, and at U.S. Open his abdomen injury had limited him to serve in the 80s and 90s—something not common even on the women's side.

Hence, Nadal will still be confident about his chances the next time face off.


Under the Microscope

Just like Federer's game is perfectly suited to Nadal's style of play, Nadal's game is perfectly suited to del Potro. The top spin forehand comes at a good height to the tall Tandilian, especially at the Deco Turf, to unleash his massive forehand.

A year ago, it would have been a poor joke to talk about Nadal getting overpowered, but del Potro has done precisely that, when Nadal's forehand were coming back at double speed at Ashe. Del Potro also holds the advantage with a big and reliable serve, and being an accomplished player at the net.

Before changing the odds, however, one should note that del Potro does not have spin in his shots which Nadal has aplenty. This will be a major factor for most part of the year up till Wimbledon, and especially during the clay season.

Moreover, Nadal's agility, swiftness and fitness on court will factor in running down more balls on slower courts than he could do at the Big Apple.

Nadal also possesses one of the best body serves, along with his angled and kick serves, which would be more than a handful against the Tandilian—his tall frame would not allow him to make such quick adjustments while returning.

The body serve was what he used to great effect against Federer in Wimbledon '08, and it will be his go to serve against the World No. 5 as well.


The Edge is Still With Nadal

There have been times when Nadal has been made to look stupid in front of opponents at their very best. It happened with Gonzalez in 2007, and Tsonga in 2008; and while del Potro is heads and shoulders above the two mentioned, Nadal has always done better to figure out his opponent over time.

The slow courts of Australia will suit Nadal much more than his rival, and if Nadal gets a win under his belt, his confidence will see him through.


Showdowns To Look Out For

Del Potro's movement on grass was heavily exposed by Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon, and Nadal being an excellent grass court player would be the heavy favorite. Del Potro's movement on hard courts is a bit suspect as well. On Deco Turf he efficiently camouflages it with the pace of the court and his shots, but Plexicushion at Australia will not do him any favors.  

It will be at the red dirt where the two players will play epic battles, where the Argentine feels as much as home as he does at Deco. The masters tournaments on clay will be closely battled, while Rafael would hold the edge in Roland Garros.

Del Potro may have played two marathon five set matches against the Swiss, but the Spaniard will not keep the points short like the Swiss, and it will be interesting to see how del Potro will survive if he is made to grind in the heat of Paris.