Basel 2013: It’s No300 for defending champion Juan Martin del Potro
Defending champion Juan Martín del Potro books his semi-final place after beating Paul-Henri Mathieu in straight sets in Basel
There is no doubting that the big man from Argentina, Juan Martin del Potro, has been in terrific form during the latter part of 2013—many believing he is close the level that won him that rare thing in the current era, a Grand Slam title in 2009.
At Wimbledon, he reached his first Major semi since that New York victory, as well as two Masters finals. His three titles were at the 500 level, the latest coming as part of an impressive Asian swing that took in the title in Tokyo and the final of the Shanghai Masters.
He had, thus far, looked just as impressive, allowing Marcos Baghdatis only three games in the second round. That had taken him to within one match of 300 career wins, and while five other men had reached that milestone during 2013, del Potro was by far the youngest. In fact three of the others were in their 30s: The Argentine is still only 25.
And all the more impressive is that he missed a long stretch of his burgeoning career, eight months in 2010, having wrist surgery, and this year, he missed a stretch through the French Open with a virus.
He was odds-on favourite to reach the big 300, and beyond. Every other seed in his half was already gone, and now he faced French qualifier Paul-Henri Mathieu, who had fallen in the first round 15 times this year. This, in fact, marked Mathieu’s best run, his only other quarter-final being in Nice.
But the Frenchman proved to be a much tougher opponent than his 2013 record and his ranking suggested. Del Potro managed just one break in a tight first serve to take it 6-4 in 35 minutes, and the second set was even harder to call.
From a very high serving quality in the first set, just three points dropped, his level dropped off a little in the second, and he faced deuce in the second game. It was, in truth, a couple of errors from Mathieu that let the Argentine off the hook and he held, still without facing a break point.
Now refocused, the del Potro serve came back with a vengeance and he made two quick holds to pile the pressure on the Frenchman. Sure enough, he made the breakthrough in the seventh and backed it up with a love hold containing two 214kph aces. He surged on to score that 300th win, 6-4.
Even the famously modest del Potro admitted that he was playing better with each match, though perfectionist that he is, he felt his height made him rather less quick about the court than the other players. In truth, it did not show. Fitness, speed and forward mobility are elements he has certainly improved in the last year.
He would not be drawn on who might win the battle of the very fast single-handed men who followed him onto court. As a good friend of Federer, who he beat here in the final last year, he no doubt favoured the Swiss. But first, he would play another unseeded Frenchman.
His next opponent had already been determined from the surprise quarter line-up of the day. The two surviving men, Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France and Daniel Brands of Germany, were ranked 65 and 58 respectively, and had seen off the two seeds in this quarter. The first beat Stan Wawrinka, the latter Andreas Seppi, and their close ranking all but guaranteed they would go the full distance, a two-hour back-and-forth contest that eventually went to the Frenchman, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.
The other day match saw one more strong performance from the fresh-faced young Canadian, Vasek Pospisil. He faced for the first-time Croat Ivan Dodig who, like Pospisil was competing for his first final while celebrating a career-high ranking. The 28-year-old Dodig had reached three semi-finals during 2013 and Basel marked his seventh quarter-final of the year, achieved with a win over the No6 seed, Kei Nishikori. He was riding high inside the top 30, at 29.
The 23-year-old Pospisil, who has been enjoying a break-out season that saw him reach the semi-finals at the Montreal Masters in August, also reached the semis in Bogota. What’s more, he arrived in Basel with a win over Richard Gasquet in Shanghai, and he coped with the in-form, huge serving Ivo Karlovic with relative ease.
He appeared on court, however, looking a little less than confident and the reason was apparent in the tape he wore down his neck. He managed to stay on terms with Dodig—who has a similar big-serving, forward-moving game—but at times moved tentatively. Pospisil revealed afterwards that he had woken up unable to move his neck and was reconciled to forfeiting the match, but with painkillers, it had eased up enough to try, and having consulted the doctor ahead of the first set tie-break that he could not make it worse, he carried on, relaxed and the crowd was rewarded with a gripping concluding game. Pospisil sealed it, 13-11, with an ace.
The two men exchanged breaks in the middle of the second set, but as Pospisil opened his forehand down the line, he took control, broke in the ninth, and served out, 6-4.
Just like Grigor Dimitrov, Pospisil had Roger Federer as his idol growing up and hoped it would be the Swiss who won through to the semis:
“I’ve played him once already, and that was one of the highlights of my career…
Now in Basel, it would very special, obviously if he gets through, but either way it would be special getting to the semis.”
He would have to wait a few more hours to see whether his wish would be granted.