In the Summer of 2008, a teenaged Juan Martin del Potro amassed 23 consecutive match wins across five tournaments. This streak furnished every indication that the mild-mannered 6′ 6″ native of Tandil, seemingly possessed of tennis aptitude scaled to match his enormous stature, was headed for greatness. Come the Autumn of 2009, guesswork was necessary no longer: In a match for his maiden Grand Slam title, del Potro managed to interrupt Roger Federer’s dominion over the US Open—permanently, hindsight suggests—prior to posting a runner-up finish at the ATP World Tour Finals (he also beat Federer at the O2).
In later years, del Potro has had his moments, displaying the world-beating form of 2008 and 2009 in mid-career spurts. But, as we know all too well, he has had his surgeries: One procedure on his right wrist, three on his left. Thankfully, Delpo has stayed healthy, with the aid of sensible scheduling, for two years. Even better: After picking up two titles in March, improving his 2018 record to 21-4, and climbing up to No.6 in the world, he is finally getting back to where he once was.
At the Mexican Open, del Potro began the 15-match winning run which only Federer has bested this year. Mischa Zverev proved no match for him in the round of 32, claiming a measly three games over two sets. Predictably, David Ferrer put up a tougher fight in the last 16; del Potro was taken to three sets by the Spaniard, who, in spite of his decline, is no less nightmarish for del Potro to deal with these days as he was in years past. In the last eight, del Potro eliminated 2016 champion Dominic Thiem, 6-2, 7-6(7), and in the semis saw off the younger, more baseline-savvy Zverev brother, 6-4, 6-2. Only Kevin Anderson, the 2014 finalist at Acapulco, stood between del Potro and a first ATP 500 title since 2013. And he too, was beaten handily: a 6-4, 6-4 victory is about as routine as it gets against someone with a serve that near enough guarantees them a tiebreak per match.
Leveraging the confidence gained from winning Acapulco, Delpo took no prisoners at Indian Wells. The first of his six matches saw him face Alex de Minaur, a fledgling Aussie who reeled off a series of upsets in front of his home fans in January. Delpo controlled proceedings with his forehand from beginning to end, sweeping aside the youngster in a little more than an hour. Subsequent rounds steadily rose in difficulty: There was a 6-4, 7-6(3) tussle with Ferrer, a recovery from a set and a break down needed against countryman Leonardo Mayer, and a close three-set contest with Philipp Kohlschreiber. Comparatively speaking, del Potro’s handling of Milos Raonic in the semi-final was expertly efficient, though things were bound to get hairy again in the final with Federer awaiting him.
On that point, the rivalry between Federer and del Potro might just be the most engaging in men’s tennis right now because the winner of a match between the pair is hardly ever a foregone conclusion. Viewed from Federer’s angle, suicidal patterns of play run on a loop: Without fail, he refuses to retreat from the baseline in the face of del Potro’s thunderous hitting and insists on repeatedly trading blows off the forehand wing, perhaps entrenched in the belief that he can beat del Potro the same way he beats everyone else. Federer’s stubbornness should somewhat skew the matchup in del Potro’s favour—except that it doesn’t: no one plays with fire in a baseline exchange quite so adeptly as the veteran Swiss.
Their latest showdown was finely balanced throughout; del Potro enjoyed the upper hand in the first set-and-a-half, prior to Federer striking back in the second set tiebreak and serving for the match in the third. What was shaping up to be the last game of the match mutated into an uncharacteristic Federer meltdown that stirred del Potro into an eleventh-hour recovery. The 29-year-old warded off three match points and ran away with the deciding set breaker.
There was no time for Delpo to rest on his laurels after winning a Masters 1000 tournament for the first time, as his winning one half of the ‘sunshine double’ invited talk that he had it in him to win the other. John Isner dashed those hopes in a one-sided Miami Open semi-final, but the seeds of Delpo’s resurgence have been sown. Unquestionably, there are few men more likely to bag one (or more) of 2018’s three remaining majors; if not a geriatric Federer or Nadal, someone has to rise to the occasion, and the putative stars of the future, for the time being, have not been forthcoming. With the fortunes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka dwindling and peripheral slam contenders, such as Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem, struggling to turn potentiality into consistent achievment, the stage is set for Juan Martin del Potro to make this year the best of his career.