Welcome, perhaps, to a new Age of Ugliness in men’s tennis. We could already be in phase two of Juan Martin del Potro’s relaunch, and the return proper of his slapped, smacked forehand. Anyone seeking grace, elegance or sophistication with their tennis, look elsewhere.
Other than the top three, there are four grand slam champions in the men’s field at the Australian Open. One of those is the almost-forgotten Juan Carlos Ferrero. A couple of former world number ones, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, will on Thursday play each other in the second round – remember the days when the seedings kept them apart until the semi-finals? – yet you will do well to find anyone at Melbourne Park, even those who have had too much sun and beer in Garden Square, who consider that the American and the Australian will win a slam this year. Put their match down as an enjoyable piece of retro.
The thinking on Del Potro is different. To borrow a phrase from Roddick, if Del Potro can get back to striking his forehand as he did to win the 2009 US Open, he will “stay relevant”. Over the last seven years, only Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Del Potro have been grand slam champions, and the men’s tour would probably be a different place today if the Argentine had not missed most of the 2010 season because of a wrist injury. Here’s something worth considering: had Del Potro not damaged his wrist, and had he been allowed to push on from his victory in New York, would Djokovic have had the year he did last season? There are times in tennis when power negates everything, even Federer’s talent, as we saw at Flushing Meadows in that final two and a half years ago.
There is something compelling about the violence, the brutality, of the Del Potro forehand. Darren Cahill, who has coached Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray, has argued that the 23-year-old Del Potro, who will play Taipei’s Yen-Hsun Lu for a place in the fourth round, could go deep at the slams this year. “I want to see Del Potro step up in the slams. I think everybody in the tennis world was disappointed to see him miss almost a year of tennis, and then not overly surprised that he made the comeback that he did last year, because we all know that he’s a great talent,” said Cahill, who is working for ESPN during the tournament.
“I think that fitness, strength and conditioning were an issue for him last year in five-set matches. In three-set matches he got away with it and he did extremely well. But now he’s got a year of tennis under his belt, and when he’s playing his best tennis, he’s a top-five player and he can certainly win another slam. I feel like Del Potro is the one to watch step up at the slams and have a couple of great slams this season.”
When Del Potro returned to Australia last year, he was “scared”, and he lost in the second round. He had a half-decent year at the slams, results which brought him the award for the comeback player of the year. At the French Open, he reached the third round, where he was stopped by Djokovic. Del Potro’s fourth-round defeat against Nadal at Wimbledon was one of his highlights of the year, as he was so encouraged by the quality of the tennis he produced on the grass. He made the third round of the US Open. Maybe it won’t happen for Juan Martin in Melbourne this fortnight, but it could well do in Paris, London or New York. “Yeah, I’m almost in my best form,” he said after beating Slovenia’s Blaz Kavcic in straight sets.
At the top of the men’s game, Del Potro is the past. He is also the future.
Back in the northern hemisphere winter, the All England Club have called in the headhunters. Wimbledon have appointed the ‘executive search firm’ Spencer Stuart to help them find a successor to chief executive Ian Ritchie, who leaves tennis next month.