The Myth of the Fairytale Comeback

Juan Martin del Potro loses to Gilles Simon in R3 (4-6 7-6 6-2 7-6) at the US Open.

Source: AP

So what happened?  Simon is always a tough match-up for Del Potro and the tall Argentine has never fared well against defensive players.  This time, Simon mixed up his game plan and often dictated play.  We saw this game plan in effect this June, when Del Potro and Simon played at Wimbledon, where Del Potro pulled off the win. This time on hard courts that played a lot like ‘blue clay’, no number of Del Potro’s forehands was sufficient to wear out the Frenchman. I was scared for JMDP’s wrist.

JMDP had more than 70 unforced errors and he maddeningly stayed put behind the baseline. He also stood far behind the baseline to receive Simon’s serve, when he could have been aggressive on the returns. To his credit, he gave the 4th set a tremendous effort, including a tricky on-the-knee volley. But he lost BP chances at 0-40 that would have given him a 5th set. Del Potro, who’d once been so clutch in tiebreakers, could not beat a Simon who was in fine form. Clearly, lack of fitness is still a major issue for him.

But what about the UFEs on his forehand? Del Potro is a power baseliner so if there is one positive take away from this match, it’s that he rediscovered his fine forehand in bits and spurts. Everyone knows Delpo for his “murderous forehand” but honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen him use his forehand as a weapon this season. It’s been a bit “emperor with no clothes” in that department, with commentators constantly reinforcing the theme even when Del Potro was not executing forehands to any special effect. But this match showed he still has it. Now he needs to sort out the accuracy and placement (As the great Uncle Toni once said: First, hit the ball hard. Then focus on getting it into the court). JMDP’s chances of winning games have come to depend on his willingness to come to the net. His net game (or lack thereof) is still a major work in progress, but may he keep trying.

Del Potro, then and now?: He can work on his fitness, but his confidence and attitude concern me.  After his 2008 QF loss to Murray at the USO, he started crying and had to be led out of the press room.

(Del Potro in 2008, after his QF loss to Andy Murray at the USO)

This year, he seems wearily accepting of the rough spot he finds himself.  A fellow tennis fan asked if JMDP might follow the career path of Marat Safin. Dear Reader, there is nothing more despair-inducing than the thought of a young talent going the way of Safin.  I cannot.  No one would have guessed Safin, with his abundance of talent, would fall by the wayside for so many years.

That’s why I wanted to see the once-younger version of JMDP, the one who had post-defeat tears because he was upset with himself.  Not *this* vision of a recovering athlete who seems almost aloof, a little too willing to accept that it’s-hard-so-what-can-you-do.

(Del Potro after his R3 loss to Simon at the 2011 US open)

 Alas 2009, the year he won the US Open title, was two long years ago.  So this is probably the best approach for him. We don’t want Del Potro becoming a tempestuous head case.  I don’t buy into the Andy Roddick theory of pure anger as proof of heart and competitive fire.  It’s not JMDP’s daily cup of tea either.  Del Potro was realistic about his own chances this year, although he’ll probably leave New York feeling he should have done more.

What’s in store for Del Potro?: Franco Davin, Del Potro’s faithful coach, was the man behind Del Potro’s famous rise up the rankings in 2008-2009.  Davin has previous experience with talented players who encounter a drop in form from which they never bounce back.  When asked why his previous charges, Guillermo Coria and Gaston Gaudio, were unable to re-climb the heights they once scaled, Davin has often stated they were incapable of maintaining their top form.  That doesn’t really answer the question (They just couldn’t?)  Yet the recently retired Gaudio was a completely different kettle of fish, he was mentally erratic and volatile. Only a few years after winning Roland Garros, Gaudio was back to playing Challenger events. Thankfully, JMDP’s in the top 20 this year but the rest of 2011-2012 is going to be a very critical test for his career. Although the question of where JMDP figures on the tennis landscape is entirely in his hands (esp. the right hand that’s connected to his wrist), I wonder if he might also benefit from the addition of a secondary coach or a trainer who can push through this murky gray patch. Nadal has a second coach in Francisco Roig, as does Federer with Severin Luthi, Murray with his rotating cast of the Adidas team, and Gasquet with Sebastian Grosjean. A second pair of eyes could force JMDP to sharpen his footwork and fitness.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I thought Del Potro would reach the USO QF this year: that would have been the perfect next step after reaching R2 at the Oz Open, R3 at the French, and R4 at Wimbledon.  His 2011 Grand Slam season has been bookended by losses to very respectable opponents (Baghdatis and Simon)–but two opponents that the JMDP of 2009 would handily have beaten.  Maybe it’s time to shelve the memory of JMDP circa 2009** and focus on where he’s going at the present moment.  I’m thinking he can post great results at the Shanghai and Paris Masters tournaments at the end of the year.                                     

Franco Davin with Delpo and at right, with 2004 Roland Garros champion Gaston Gaudio                                                                                                                                                   —————————————                                                                                                                                                                         **although I don’t think that’s really possible. Even Delpo remembers himself as he was in 2009.

The myth of the fairytale comeback: To conclude, I think Maria Sharapova’s interview after she lost the Wimbledon final to Petra Kvitova perfectly sums up the kind of state that a fellow recoveree like JMDP finds himself in this year:

Q. Obviously there was a lot of excitement at seeing a brand-new champion. Did you sense the goodwill there was towards you after the whole injury thing to come back and complete the whole fairytale?

A. MARIA SHARAPOVA: You know, I don’t really see this as a fairytale. Even if I would have won it, it’s still a lot of hard work. It’s not that these results and getting to the final comes out of thin air.

I’m no Sharapova fanatic, but that there is a gem quote from her regarding the myth of the fairytale comeback.  She would know, having spent the past three years struggling with form.  Still she’s gone on an impressive rise up the rankings, collecting Masters titles to add to her impressive haul. Hopefully, JMDP can take heed and strengthen his still-solid comeback this year


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About mariposaxprs

I play favorites with Juan Martin Del Potro, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Gilles Simon and the long line of mercurial talent that drives me to despair in front of the screen at odd hours during the week.
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