The road to the top of men’s tennis is no cake walk.
Just ask Juan Martin del Potro, the aspiring man with the damaged wrist.
The Argentine upped his ranking as high as No. 5 in the world after defeating then-No. 1 seed Roger Federer at the finals of the U.S. Open in 2009. Last year’s champion, however, will not be able to defend his Big Apple crown in 2010.
Federer was going for his sixth consecutive U.S. Open championship under the hot afternoon sun in 2009. The Swiss had not lost a match at Flushing Meadows since 2003. That day, Del Potro won his first match over the world No. 1 in six tries, not to mention his first major championship.
You could not make it to the top without going through Federer in 2009. Few had ever stopped the Swiss in mid-flight. David Nalbandian stood tall against Federer during the fourth round in 2003 at the U.S. Open after Federer won his first major title at Wimbledon earlier that summer.
Gustavo Kuerten took Federer to the wood shed in the third round of the French Open in 2004. The next year, the enigmatic Russian, Marat Safin, defeated the Swiss in the semifinals of the Australian Open, going on to win the championship.
Shortly thereafter in 2005, Rafael Nadal defeated the Federer in the semifinals at the French Open. Nadal went on to win his first French Open Championship, which marked the beginning of a remarkable run on the red clay for Nadal at Stade Roland Garros.
Federer lost to Novak Djokovic during the 2008 Australian Open semifinals. In 2010 at the French Open, Federer suffered defeat in the quarterfinals to Swede Robin Soderling, who went on to the finals. Federer followed shortly with another loss in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon to Tomas Berdych, who also went on the the championship match. Both finalists lost shadowboxing with Nadal.
Other than Nadal, who defeated Federer in three French Open finals—Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2009—the only man who overcame Federer in a major final was the determined del Potro in the waning summer of 2009. The U.S. Open signaled a turning point in the life of the Argentine, who, at 6’6” tall, was 20 years old at the time.
Although he won the Heineken Open in Auckland and was seeded No. 8 at the 2009 Australian Open, Federer dismissed del Potro (6-3, 6-0, 6-0) in the quarterfinals. It was an embarrassing loss for the young man from Argentina. But he learned quickly from his failures.
For example, although Rafael Nadal defeated del Potro at the tournament in Indian Wells during their quarterfinal matchup in the early spring of 2009, the next time they met at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, del Potro defeated Nadal, coming back from a double break down in the third.
It marked the first time del Potro defeated Nadal, and it began a pattern of wins over the then No. 1-ranked player. The win lifted del Potro to No. 5 in the ATP rankings.
When the tour moved to clay, del Potro enjoyed moderate success. He met Federer in the semifinals at Madrid, losing the match (3-6, 4-6). As the fifth seed at the French Open del Potro advanced to the semifinals—his first major semifinal.
There he met the invincible Swiss once again. But this time, there were no bagel sets against the Argentine. Although he lost the match, del Potro battled hard, gaining more experience and garnering more hope in his five-set loss (6-3, 6-7, 6-2, 1-6, 4-6) to Federer. For the first time, del Potro won a set in a match with Federer.
The 2009 French Open gave del Potro the belief that he could stay with Federer in a five-set match. The 20-year-old was learning fast. But his learning curve gave him no advantage on the grass at Wimbledon where he lost in the second round to Lleyton Hewitt. The Argentine had not yet fashioned his game to suit the grass courts. It remains another lesson to be learned.
During the American hard court season, del Potro won his second consecutive title in Washington D.C. He defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals at the Masters in Montreal, his second defeat of the Majorcan. The Argentine subsequently lost to Andy Murray in the finals.
The U.S. Open is where del Potro proved himself, becoming only the second man not named Federer or Nadal to win a major since 2005. Federer’s losses at the U.S. Open, ironically, are sandwiched between two Argentines: David Nalbandian, who defeated him in 2003, and del Potro, who defeated him in 2009.
Seeded No. 6, del Potro marched through the draw. He met and defeated Marin Cilic in five sets to advance to the semifinals, where he faced then No. 3-ranked Nadal. Del Potro defeated him once again in straight sets 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. His next opponent would be Federer—but this time in the finals of the 2009 U.S. Open.
Frankly, not many gave the young Argentine much of a chance to defeat the resurgent Federer who had won the French Open and Wimbledon in succession for the first time in his illustrious career.
But this proved to be del Potro’s moment in the sun, and despite being down two-sets-to-one and then down a break in the fifth set, the Argentine hung on and fought back to take the victory from the five-time defending champion, Federer (3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2).
The overwhelming pace of del Potro’s ground strokes pounded Federer, keeping the mighty Swiss on his heels. Del Potro simply refused to cave in or go away in this match. With his dominating serve and the speed and power of his ground strokes, the Argentine inflicted fatal wounds. Federer could only watch as another potential piece of history bled into the grounds at Flushing Meadows.
The win propelled del Potro back to the No. 5 ranking, and announced to the world that there was another player in the mix with Djokovic and Murray, challenging Federer and Nadal for that No. 1 ranking. It looked like nothing could interfere with this rising star’s assured success.
Then, the bottom fell out, as fatigue and injury set in to do what Federer and Nadal were unable to do—sideline the young man from Argentina.
Del Potro’s sporadic appearances after the U.S. Open brought few victories until the year-end World Tour Finals, where he defeated Federer once again in the round robin portion of the contest and Robin Soderling in the semifinals. Del Potro lost to Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the finals.
Following his run at the World Tour Finals, the Argentine did climb to the No. 4 ranking for a short time in January of 2010 before a wrist injury caused his withdrawal at Kooyong. This same wrist injury plagued him during the Australian Open, and eventually rendered him unable to swing a tennis racket.
Del Potro and his team elected to undergo wrist surgery at the Mayo Clinic in the United States, and the Argentine remains hopeful to return to action, but not in time to defend his title at Flushing Meadows—he could return for the Paris Indoor in the Fall. In the meantime, del Potro’s ranking continues to drop.
The question for the tennis world remains: Will this young man from Argentina be able to recapture the form and power he asserted in gaining his rightful place at the top of the men’s game?
As we watch players like Djokovic and Murray continue to choke in major matches and we see Federer unable to sustain his dominance, you have to like the chances of tennis phenom Juan Martin del Potro, now 21 years old, becoming the next challenger for the No. 1 crown.