Can the Tower of Tandil derail the Serbian Nole Express freight train in the French Open third round?
The evening of Friday, May 27, could possibly present tennis fans with one of the all-time epics, as the biggest and most anticipated match at Roland Garros this year (apart from the final) takes place. The 25th-seeded Argentine, Juan Martin Del Potro takes on the man without a blemish on his win-loss record in 2011, World No. 2, Novak Djokovic.
Del Potro's world ranking belies his talent and pedigree, as he is a former Grand Slam winner at Flushing Meadows in 2009. Djokovic, on the other hand, needs no more introduction after continuation of "the streak," which stretches to 41-0 at the moment (39-0 in 2011).
That this is a third-round match rather than a final or a semifinal is probably an injustice to both, but as they say, if you want to win the big tournaments, you have to be prepared to face the big players at any point in the draw.
In head-to-heads, Djokovic is undefeated against Del Potro. But as Novak himself would know so well, the past counts for little on the day of the match, since he himself has conquered his demons (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) on both hard and clay courts this year.
So what is it in each player's arsenal that could hold the future of "the streak" in the balance on Friday?
Del Potro Is a Righty, and His Shots Are as Crisp as They Come
At 6'6", Del Potro is easily one of the tallest players on the ATP Tour. However, his height and reach are things he has learned to use to his advantage, unlike some of the other giants on the Tour (yes, I'm talking to you Ivo Karlovic and John Isner).
Unlike Nadal—who Djokovic has pretty much schooled on clay this year—Del Potro presents a different kind of challenge altogether to "the streak."
First off, Del Potro is a right-hander, so Djokovic's cross-court forehands will just flow towards Del Potro's own killer forehand, which neither Nadal nor Federer would forget from that 2009 US Open. Before injury hampered his climb towards the Big Four, Del Potro possessed possibly the biggest forehand on tour.
No messing around with putting monstrous rotations on the ball through near-impossible topspin for Del Potro; he just sees the trajectory of the ball so clearly that he can whack it clean through the line of the ball for a winner without even using the benefit of spin. If anyone saw Victor Hanescu taking it to Djokovic in the earlier part of the first set in Round 2, imagine a more consistent version of that toe-to-toe big hitting.
It will be interesting to see whether Del Potro's forehand is in working—or should I say bludgeoning—order on Friday. Del Potro's serve is also an asset thanks to his towering frame, making it easier for him to test Djokovic's returning skills thoroughly, as opposed to Nadal's weaker deliveries.
Most importantly, Del Potro starts off this match as the underdog, taking plenty of pressure off his shoulders and allowing him to go for his shots and take more risks to stretch Djokovic to the maximum.
Djokovic Is in "The Zone' and Would Do Well To Exploit Del Potro's Weaker Backhand
Right now, Novak Djokovic is unbeatable on the tennis court and more importantly, in his own mind. His icy nerves could face their sternest test yet when faced with Del Potro's scorching flat shots, which have the potential to melt any sort of ice.
Djokovic's notoriety for mental and physical fragility has been transformed into fame for fitness and mojo this year. If the match does stretch into a long-drawn fourth or fifth set, it could be Djokovic who potentially holds the edge.
Also, Del Potro's recently injured hip has yet to be tested in a runabout filled with twists and turns against someone of Djokovic's caliber.
Djokovic would do well to absolutely overwork his two-handed cross-court backhand, which would most likely hold the key to drawing unforced errors from Del Potro, as his two-handed backhand isn't likely to be as consistent as Nole's in the longer rallies.
His ability to return even the toughest serve and play defense is likely to be of immense use as well.
Pick: Djokovic in Five
Even though Djokovic starts out as favorite on paper, it would do us all well to remember that sports contests are never won on paper, but on the playing field itself.
Look for Novak to extend "the streak" to 42-0, but just barely, by surviving a five-set marathon against the Tower of Tandil.
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