You don’t have to be an avid follower of tennis to realise that the game is in a tantalising state of flux. Andy Murray has been missing since his Wimbledon collapse and despite making his return from injury, Novak Djokovic looks an anaemic projection of his former self having lost his last three matches with startling acquiescence. The decline of Djokovic and Murray has allowed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to reemerge as 2017’s conquerors, but the bloated tennis season schedule seems to be having a hangover effect. Nadal hasn’t played since his quarter final withdrawal at the Australian Open in January and Federer exited the Miami Open this week after a shock second round loss to world no.175 Thanasi Kokkinakis, citing fitness issues and exhaustion.
With Nadal far from peak fitness and Federer perhaps finally showing signs of weakness in old age, and the often forgotten Stanislas Wawrinka also struggling with knee problems, the top five are very much on the ropes with the clay season fast approaching. But amidst the fog of uncertainty emerges a tall, lumbering figure, ready to monopolise the void created by the absence of tennis’ elite.
“Del Potro became the first player to defeat both Federer and Nadal en route to Grand Slam glory. Nine years later, Del Potro is still capable of unsettling the game’s most graceful players”
The ultimate renaissance man, Juan Martin Del Potro, seems to have re-solidified the form that won him the US Open and a no.4 ranking by just the age of 21. Back from the brink of extinction after recovering from two career-threatening wrist injuries, there is always an air of adoration surrounding the Argentinian. During 2014 and 2015, Del Potro only managed 14 matches and slipped outside of the top 1000. Retirement seemed like an inevitability.
We’re now in 2018, and Del Potro has climbed back into the top 10 and defeated an inspired Roger Federer in the final at Indian Wells. It was a glaring reminder of Del Potro’s initial promise. When he won his sole major in 2009, Del Potro became the first player to defeat both Federer and Nadal en route to Grand Slam glory. Nine years later, Del Potro is still capable of unsettling the game’s most graceful players.
But of course in this rare window where the elite are waning, showing chinks in the armour, there are other contenders who will be buoyed by the possibility of unexpected glories. Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov and the young Alexander Zverev have cemented themselves as top 5 players in this recent period of upheaval and each of them look capable of pouncing on a subpar Federer or Nadal. However, there is something about Del Potro that places him on a lone step between the top two and the remainder of the chasing pack.
In addition to the devastating forehand, the Argentinian has managed to revive his backhand, slowly adjusting to a two-handed grip that has whispers of Nadal’s post-knee operation revival. It’s a move that has helped to make Del Potro a dangerous proposition once again. The liberated backhand removes the need for unnecessary footwork to strike off of the forehand or negotiating anticlimactic backhand slices and chips that alleviate advantages built during rallies. Like the Del Potro of old, he is free to attack from all angles, able to take full advantage of his intimidating frame when returning serve. In a season of unpredictable oscillations, Del Potro looks like the man for all seasons, all occasions, and all types of player.