The end of the year and the start of the new season is approaching. Ricky Dimon of Tennistalk.com joins as we continue to look at the key storylines, questions and predictions for 2013.
Today’s Toss: Will Juan Martin del Potro crack into the top four in 2013?
Courtney Nguyen: Today we talk about the one guy on the ATP Tour that everyone — players, fans and pundits — seems to like. I mean, are there Delpo haters? I’ve honestly never come across one. From his powerful game to his soft-spoken demeanor, Del Potro inspires a lot of love. He’s still the last player outside of the top four to win a Grand Slam, and he finished the 2012 season on a solid roll, beating Roger Federer twice on indoor hard courts and finishing at No. 7.
So the question is whether the Del Potro comeback from a wrist injury is complete. The big guy cracked the top four at the beginning of 2010 but struggled with a wrist injury that took him off the tour for a few months, and he’s been slowly working his way back into form. So is 2013 the year we see Del Potro back in the top four?
Ricky Dimon, Writer/Blogger, Tennistalk.com: Del Potro will break up the top 4 and not only make an appearance that high in the rankings, but also finish the season in such a prestigious spot. David Ferrer will almost certainly make an appearance at No. 4 early in the season due to both his own play and Rafael Nadal’s rust, as he stands just just 485 points back of his fellow Spaniard. But as good as Ferrer is and as scorching hot as he was at the end of 2012, I don’t think he will stay there.
If Del Potro stays healthy, he will no doubt have sustained success from start to finish because he can get the job done on all surfaces. Grass is by far his worst, but he will play two tournaments at most on the slick stuff — good news for the gentle giant. Del Potro is a U.S. Open champion (on a fast hard court), a French Open semifinalist (clay), a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist (slow hard court), and in 2012 he had his best-ever showing at Wimbledon (fourth round). There is nothing this guy can’t do.
Another encouraging sign for Delpo fans (of which there are many, as Courtney pointed out), is that he finally understands what his body can and can’t do. In 2010, he foolishly played in Melbourne despite a bad wrist, and it cost him the rest of the season. After losing a five-setter in the fourth round, he did not play another match until late September and he didn’t win another match until 2011. By contrast, Del Potro played it smarter in 2012. Even though a Davis Cup title may be what he wants above all else, he did not suit up for what would have been a crucial reverse singles match against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinal clash between Argentina and the Czech Republic. As a result, the Czechs won and went on to win the Cup. At the same time, however, Del Potro remained in one piece, finished the year strong, and is peaking for 2013.
Nguyen: Del Potro does seem to be peaking at the right time. The key has been to remain injury free, which he was at the end of the year. But to back him to crack the top four means you’re backing him to win a Grand Slam next year, and I’m not sure I’m ready to buy into that. Let’s be clear, Del Potro had an incredibly solid season that was easily overlooked. He played 20 tournaments this year and lost to a player ranked outside of the top five a mere five times. That’s an incredible level of consistency that saw him win four titles and Olympic bronze. And yet, despite the year that he had, wherein he compiled a 65-17 record, he barely finished inside the top eight.
In order to crack the top four he’s going to have to pass Berdych (No. 6), Ferrer (No. 5) and either Nadal (No. 4) or Andy Murray (No. 3), and he’ll need to do it at the larger tournaments, i.e., the Masters 1000s and Slams, to make the semifinals or better. Though Berdych may not be a threat — Del Potro only lost to him once this year and that was on Madrid’s Smurf clay — Del Potro got pasted by Ferrer this year. In three matches, the Argentine didn’t take one set off Ferrer, including a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 loss at Wimbledon. And though they haven’t played since 2009, Del Potro doesn’t match up well against Murray, trailing the head-to-head 5-1. As for Nadal, that’s going to be a surface-specific matchup, and it’ll turn in large part on Nadal’s fitness and form. Throw Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic into the mix, and that’s a whole lot of talent that Del Potro may need to get the better of on the biggest stages in order to rack up the points.
I’ve never questioned Del Potro’s talent, but sometimes his personality gets the better of him. He truly seems humbled to be playing alongside some of the greatest ever and has the tendency to mentally concede matches against them when the pressure is on. All four of his Grand Slams ended at the hands of a top-five player, and three of them were straight-set losses. So the question is whether he can play these big matches with full belief and expectation that he can win. We saw glimpses of this edge toward the end of the season with his two wins over Federer. But until I get a glimpse of him in Australia the jury is still out.
The thing is, Del Potro really hasn’t had to play under huge amounts of pressure and expectation in his career. When he won the U.S. Open in 2009 he did so as a massive underdog. In 2010, the year he would have faced the most pressure to perform, he had that season-ending wrist injury. Since,, Del Potro has had the luxury of playing under very little pressure. Wins were great, losses were understandable. That all changes next year, when he’ll be expected to win, to make deep runs at Slams and contend for major titles. I’m just not convinced (yet) he can handle that spotlight.
Dimon: That’s some impressive number-crunching there, Courtney. While the playing styles of Del Potro and Ferrer are nothing alike, their results are strikingly similar. Ferrer lost six matches in 2012 to people not named Djokovic, Federer, Murray or Nadal. He was 0-3 against Djokovic, 0-3 against Nadal, 0-2 against Federer and 1-1 against Murray (that’s 1-9 total versus the big four). Still, by beating up on the rest of the competition (a ridiculous 75-6 against everyone else), he was easily good enough to finish No. 5 with room to spare and reach the brink of No. 4. Del Potro will never play as many matches as Ferrer, nor should he, but he has made and can continue to make similar mincemeat out of non-big four opponents. If he does, it will be enough to compensate for failures against Djokovic, Federer, Murray, and Nadal.
That being said, I expect better results from Del Potro than his 3-9 mark against the big four in 2012 (1-3 vs. Djokovic, 2-6 vs. Federer, and he did not face Murray or Nadal). The fact that he won two in a row against Federer to end the season, including one in Federer’s backyard at an event the Swiss had won five times, inspires confidence. In four matches against Djokovic, the first resulted in a Del Potro victory, the second was a blowout loss due almost entirely to wrist issues, the third featured what was widely considered to be the best set of tennis of the entire year (second set of their U.S. Open quarterfinal), and the most recent was an entertaining, three-set battle at the World Tour Finals. As for how he measures up against Nadal, Del Potro has left no doubt. The 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing at the 2009 U.S. Open is without question the biggest injury-free beatdown Nadal has ever received. In 2011, Del Potro lost two thrillers to Nadal on grass and clay, the surfaces that are least favorable to the Argentine in that matchup.
As for the question about a Grand Slam title, I will — for now — back Del Potro to win one. I believe we will enjoy another season of parity with four different winners, one being Del Potro. However, I also believe he can crack the big four code even without one. With Nadal bringing more questions than answers into the season and with Federer cutting back on his schedule at 31, one major final plus an additional semifinal may be enough for the affable Argentine.