Shanghai Masters: Bold Del Potro plays big to beat Nadal & reach WTFs
Shanghai Masters 2013: Juan Martin del Potro beats world No1 in straight sets to reach final against Novak Djokovic
After Rafael Nadal resisted some of the hottest tennis of the week from Stanislas Wawrinka in his quarter-final, it was has hard to imagine a better set of tennis in Shanghai this week.
Certainly tennis fans knew they were in for a top-quality encounter when Nadal took on Juan Martin del Potro, for the big Argentine was, give or take a heavy cold this week, in great form—and at his best, he can generate more flat speed off a forehand than almost anyone in tennis.
In the latter stages of 2013, he had edged back to No5 in the world, a ranking he last reached before wrist surgery at the start of 2010. As well as winning three 500 tournaments this year, he also showed on the bigger stages that he was close to the form that took him to a Grand Slam title in New York in 2009.
At Indian Wells, he reached the final by beating Tommy Haas, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, and then took the first set from Nadal before losing the final in three.
After missing the French Open with illness, he sailed through to the Wimbledon semi-finals without dropping a set, beating David Ferrer in the process, but it was his match against Djokovic in the semis that became the most memorable of the tournament—a near-five-hour feast which showed Del Potro is not just a big hitter but an impressive mover for such a big man.
He arrived in Shanghai on the back of the Tokyo title and survived some tough battles against the likes of Philipp Kohlschrieber and Nicolas Almagro. Remarkably, though, Del Potro had reached only two Masters finals in his career. Could he reach a third, especially with the incentive of sealing a place at the ATP World Tour Finals if he succeeded?
Right from the first, it was clear he was on a mission to do just that. His jaw-dropping forehand, which back in 2009 denied Roger Federer the US Open title and has since battered many more great players, was in devastating form. Even so, it was the Argentine backhand that first broke the Nadal defences to draw errors and an immediate break of serve.
Nadal seemed ready to restore order in the next game, but a break chance was snuffed out by a big Argentine forehand, an ace and a serve-and-volley winner.
Del Potro wielded his forehand and backhand—pounded clinically first to the deuce corner then to the ad wing—to draw errors from one of the best retrievers in tennis. He had two more break points, and Nadal tried to break up the pattern with a sweet drop, then a volley finish, but Del Potro took control again. After eight spellbinding minutes, he converted his fourth break chance of the game with, of course, a huge forehand. A quick hold and he was 4-0 up.
Nadal mixed things up again, and won a magical rally with what, on any normal day, would have been three winners. It was finally a smash that won the point and he held for 1-4. He then attacked his opponent to earn a break point, but that forehand pummelled Nadal’s challenge aside and very nearly got another break with the forehand of the match so far.
The most improved part of the Del Potro game has been his movement, not just side to side—he eats up the court with his 6ft 6in stride—but also forward and on the stretch. His defence across the back of the court was, quite simply, a revelation. However, it was a running forehand across the full width of the baseline, to fire a bullet down the line from one corner to the other, that took the breath away. So fast did it fly through that Nadal could only watch, smile and shake his head.
The Spaniard’s agile game was at its pumping limits, but he had to produce three near-perfect serves to fight off the break, only to see Del Potro fire three aces and a serve-and-forehand winner for the set, 6-2.
Nadal must surely have thought that two things were in his favour. The first pulsating set had lasted 50 minutes, and Del Potro had done as much running as Nadal. It also seemed unlikely that the Argentine could keep up such blistering form for another hour.
And Nadal’s hopes looked justified at the opening of the second set. Nadal was focused, strong and confident in holding to love, and when Del Potro netted three shots in his opening game to go 15-40, Nadal bristled. But not for the first time, Del Potro doused any hope with some huge serving.
Come the next game, indeed, Del Potro looked just as vibrant, winning an extraordinary point that went through several phases—baseline rallies, to net exchanges, and back to the baseline. It was the kind of point Nadal invariably wins, but not this time. It also developed into the kind of game that Nadal usually wins—a tussle through four break points and six and a half minutes—but not this time. Del Potro had the break, and had stacked up 22 winners to Nadal’s 12.
The world No1 worked and ran and worked some more, earning a break chance in the next two Del Potro service games, then deuce in the next, but could find no way through, and the Argentine served out a famous win, 6-4.
The scoreline might suggest this was an off-day for Nadal: It was, rather, very much an on-day for Del Potro. It recalled some of the strikes he made to win that US title in 2009, but also showed how his maturing game has added another dimension: a willingness to make serve and volley plays, an effective defence, strong play on the backhand, both defensive slice and pace-changing top spin. Some of these skills have no doubt flourished on the fast courts used in Shanghai—an argument, perhaps, for more such variety in surfaces.
Del Potro now faces Djokovic for the first time since that memorable Wimbledon semi, but also for the first time in a Masters since the Argentine beat Djokovic in Indian Wells in March.
Should he win, it would be Del Potro’s first Masters title—a perfect boost ahead of his now assured fourth trip to the London finale next month.