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Calm Under Fire


del Potro© Getty ImagesArgentine Juan Martin del Potro, a winner of four titles in 2012, has qualified for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals for the first time since 2009.

There is much more to Juan Martin del Potro than his powerful game. As Robert Davis writes, there is a great calmness to the Argentine on a tennis court.

Juan Martin del Potro enters a tennis court like the good guy cowboy in a Clint Eastwood western: slow, calm, deliberate, pistol by his side. And, oh yes, he usually has a scruffy beard, too.

If there is one player at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals who does not flinch during the heat of battle, it is del Potro. Calm under fire? Del Potro practically invented the phrase. Much like Bjorn Borg, del Potro is wrapped in a cloak of simple but effective routines before and after each point. There is precious little chance for anyone to figure out what’s going on in his head. He is a man of few words – the silent but deadly type whose actions say much more.

“He is the silent but deadly type whose actions say much more”

Everything about del Potro is big; big serve, big feet, big backhand and big forehand. Not since Fernando Gonzalez have we seen such a massive backswing on the forehand side. And the backhand is no mere push of the ball, either. The South American’s big game brought him the 2009 US Open title, when he defeated Roger Federer in the final. That was some night for del Potro and Argentina. Even before del Potro levelled at two sets apiece, all of Argentina was paralysed watching the match. Streets were empty, bars were packed and television sets were screamed at. It was so bad that del Potro’s former coach Marcelo Gomez had to escape the clubhouse for a quieter place to watch the match where he could concentrate on the fifth set. Del Potro’s incredible win led to celebrations usually reserved for winning the football World Cup.

For all the good memories, time does not stand still on the ATP World Tour. As they say, there is little time to celebrate and no time to cry. That was three years ago, and if you see him today in the locker room or in the players’ lounge you get the feeling that he is a man who does not live in the past. He wants to win big tournaments, such as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and to move up the South African Airways ATP Rankings.

He’s friendly to all off the court, but once del Potro is in the arena, anyone is fair game. Just ask two legends of the game, Marat Safin and Andy Roddick. Del Potro was tasked with the difficult job of phasing both of them out of professional tennis, Safin in 2009 and Roddick this season. He did it with honour and respect, but anyone who watched those matches could almost see the cold blood pulsing through his veins. Though he admitted, in the press conference which followed his fourth-round victory over Roddick at the US Open, that it had been harder than expected.  

del Potro“It was a really tough moment for me and for Roddick, also,” del Potro disclosed. “It was the last point of his life. I really enjoyed it in that way, but it wasn’t easy for me to play. I had to close the match with my serve. And Safin was one of my idols, and when you play these kind of matches, it’s completely different.”

One of the most memorable matches of del Potro’s 2012 season came in the semi-finals of the Olympics, when he lost a 19-17 final set to Federer; it was the longest three-setter of the modern era, taking almost four and a half hours. When you’ve just had your heart ripped out of your chest, how do you wake up the next morning and go back to work?

“Well, speaking a lot with my team, with my friends, family, with everybody,” said del Potro, and, refusing to feel sorry for himself, he beat Novak Djokovic in the bronze-medal match. “I think I’m the happiest person in the world at the moment. After being really sad a couple of days ago, it’s not easy to recover. But I had energy in my body, in my heart, and that helped me to play this big challenge. It is a gift for our country.”

The road ahead is not getting any easier. After Andy Murray’s victory at the US Open, the Big Three has indisputably become the Big Four. If Del Potro is going to make it a Big Five, then he will need to play his best. 

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