On The Rise... Juan Martin del Potro
US Open 2008
by Alison Kim|
One month ago, a No. 65-ranked Juan Martin del Potro was just one player amongst the promising crop of youngsters. But with a string of 19 match wins and four titles heading into his favorite tournament, the US Open, the 19-year-old suddenly finds himself poised for Top 10 status.
Hand-in-hand, a human chain of youngster runs from side to side on a tennis court in Connecticut. The tallest one – nearly double the size of the others – holds a racquet in his right hand and is tethered to the line with his left. "Let's go, let's go, let's go," he warmly encourages as he rushes to return a ball.
The exhilarated school kids keep pace with their leader before exhaustion finally gets the better of them, setting into play a domino effect that sees a handful of children tumble to the floor. But before they know it, their leader – Juan Martin del Potro – is at their side to help them up and make sure they're okay.
Del Potro is fully aware of the difficulty involved in keeping up with him these days. It's a truth that doesn't apply just to children at the Latino Kids' Day in New Haven, but also to the best players on the ATP circuit.
The likes of Andy Roddick, Richard Gasquet, Mardy Fish and Tommy Haas can all be counted as victims of del Potro's torrid run of the past month, a streak of 19 straight match wins and four titles in four tournaments.
For the 19-year-old Argentine, the reality of his dream-like run has yet to set in: "I don't really understand what I did. I have no words to describe the feeling I have in this moment. It is difficult to believe that I have won four consecutive titles."
A mere four months ago, the idea seemed a distant possibility. Struggling with injuries, del Potro managed to play in just three ATP tournaments through the first quarter of the season, causing his ranking to dip as low as No. 81 in April. "At the start of the year, I was playing good, but I had many injuries, many problems with my body, with my physique," says del Potro. "I changed my coach, changed my physical trainer, I changed everything."
When he returned to the tour, he made a logical decision to test his fitness on European clay, reasoning, "We decided to play on clay courts for my back because if I start to play again on hard courts, maybe I will injure it again." Del Potro, who competed in just two clay tournaments all of the 2007 season, pauses before adding with a still disbelieving laugh, "I never thought to win my two titles on clay court first."
Over the course of two weeks, del Potro would manage to win more matches on the surface than he had in his previous clay court tournaments combined (9-12). Four of his five wins en route to the Stuttgart title came against seeded players. He then clinched the Kitzbuhel title the following week, this time without dropping a set in five matches.
But the success didn't end on clay. Following a 10-day break in his hometown of Tandil – complete with a hero's welcome from a 200-strong crowd of family and friends – del Potro arrived in Los Angeles to play on his surface of choice. He besieged 2003 US Open champion Roddick in a straight-sets final, and then took his devastating form cross country to Washington, where he hoisted his second hard-court trophy.
With the triumph, he accomplished what no one else in ATP history had done before – winning his first four career titles in as many tournaments. Del Potro's historic feat further placed him among elite company. Of the other 11 different teenagers who won four titles in a season, 10 of them – including Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras – went on to reach No. 1 in their careers. The sole exception, American Jimmy Arias, reached a career-high ranking of No. 5.
Del Potro, who enters the US Open at a career-high No. 17 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, has been touted as a promising youngster destined for top tier status since turning pro in 2005.
His physical ability was already evident at a young age when he was plucked from obscurity at a local football club by Marcelo Gomez, who accurately foresaw and developed del Potro's potential in tennis. His parents – Daniel, a semi-pro rugby player turned veterinarian, and Patricia, a teacher – had never played tennis, but gave him their full blessing when their talented son chose to turn his hobby into a profession. He says, "They want to see me happy, no? If I am happy to do this job, they push me to do. If I want to study or play soccer, then they support me also."
Despite growing up in the same region that produced Mariano Zabaleta and Juan Monaco, each winners of three clay court ATP titles, del Potro instead found a preference for hard courts, emulating Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin and hoping to one day play at Flushing Meadows – a dream which came true two years ago when he qualified for the US Open.
Already, the Argentine has proven his ability as an all-surface player, reaching the quarterfinals or better on hard, clay, grass and carpet – a necessity, del Potro says, to keep up with the best in the game: "It's very important because now Nadal is playing great on all surfaces and Djokovic too. If I want to be a very good player, I have to play on all surfaces."
The youngster's game, centered around his strong serve and forehand, is made even more formidable when factoring in his towering but agile 6' 6" height. "It is difficult to play him because he has a lot of reach," says former World No. 2 Haas. "Also, for his size he moves very well in the court. He is a very dangerous player. I can't really say what are his weaknesses."
But the key ingredient to his explosive run has been new coach Franco Davin. The former ATP player, whose track record behind the bench includes Gaston Gaudio's 2004 Roland Garros triumph, has given del Potro the mental strength needed to reach the next level. Del Potro says: "He changed my game. He changed my mind. He changed everything. When I play and I see him in the stands, it gives me confidence. I can play relaxed. I don't feel nervous, so that's very important to play the most important points during the match."
Davin's guidance could prove integral in leading del Potro over the next hurdle: success at the majors. Del Potro has never advanced beyond the third round at a Grand Slam, though six of his past seven losses have come against Top 10 players, including to eventual finalist Novak Djokovic last year at the US Open.
Considering the US Open is del Potro's favorite tournament, there has been no better time for him to peak. In addition to arriving at Flushing Meadows as arguably the hottest player on tour, for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament, the Argentine will have the added advantage of being seeded.
Del Potro, who aspires to "play like Safin and be focused like Hewitt," will attempt to match the accomplishments of his two on-court inspirations, both US Open champions at 20 years of age. Should del Potro succeed over this next fortnight, he will etch his name beside his idols and assume his place in the Top 10 – just weeks shy of his 20th birthday.
"I hope to win some Grand Slams, not just one. One of my dreams is to be No. 1," says del Potro, though he is quick to add a humble disclaimer, "but it's just a dream... I think we have a short career so we have to try to do our best in everything."
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