WINNER Not only was his entry unexpected he completely upturned the charts, the rankings and the court in general. RAAKESH NATRAJ
Juan Martin del Potro’s triumph at the US Open was treated with the kind of tumult, bewilderment, chaotic cheering and prophetic optimism which is generally reserved by Wall Street for city-sized alien spaceships smugly parked over lower Manhattan. He was leviathan, and he had arrived. The directive that Melanie Oudin, the surprise package in the women’s section of the tournament, had from her coach was ‘to beat six Russians and a Williams.’ Potro, the draw suggested, had to topple Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to lift the crown, provided he reached the quarters- the unlikelihood of which prompted punters to confer on him unflattering pre-tournament odds of 8/1. Andy Murray, rather helpfully, lost his fourth round match to Marin Cilic, but Potro still had to beat Nadal and Federer, the pair which among themselves had cornered 16 of the 17 previous Grand Slams. Just two wins, yes, but it simply hadn’t been done in a Grand Slam before.
In the semi-finals, del Potro gave Nadal the kind of pounding the Majorcan was rarely used to, a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 thrashing that left Nadal’s service and comeback-trail as broken as a slender-stalked wine glass under a herd of stampeding Apatosaurus. Images of the six foot six Argentine covering the court in a crazy blur weren’t too dissimilar to that of the afore-mentioned fleet-footed sauropods, and Nadal, to borrow a phrase from Moe the bully, had to be ’scraped off the walls with a spatula.’Next in line stood, Federer, already two slams up for the year. He was one win away from making it six US Open titles in a row, a feat that would match Bill Tilden’s 89-year old record. Potro’s terrifying forehand was by then as documented to death as India’s scattered overseas test wins were on popular sports channels. The match started off in keeping with the media’s prediction of it going to be a cake-walk for Federer, with the defending champion up a set and a break in no time. Potro however soon got his serve and forehand going, to first break back and then take the second set in a tie break.
Federer’s brand of charming tennis was up against the power hitting of Potro and the match undulated between the sublime and the savage, going to the decider. In between, Federer’s composure melted as rapidly as the chunky bit of ghee on a sizzling tawa. In language that should strictly not be imitated by school children when silenced by their teachers, he altercated with the chair-umpire over Potro’s decision to use the Hawk-eye. Potro, unflustered, proceeded to do a fair imitation of an annoyed caveman who uses his club to silence dissent in staving off Federer’s charge in the last set to clinch the contest and with it his maiden Grand Slam.The 20-year old’s progress has been as remarkable as it has been rapid. Says the ATP World Tour web site, in an incongruent monotone, that Del Potro, at number five, is the youngest player in the top 20. He was the youngest in the year-end top 10 in 2008, youngest in the top 50 in 2007, youngest in the top 100 in 2006, and youngest in the top 200 in 2005. In breaking the stranglehold that Federer and Nadal had established over the Grand Slams, del Potro has perhaps, restored to tennis the aura of the outsider and the underdog.
- Nicknames: Delpo, la torre de Tandil (Tandil’s tower), Enano (dwarf), Palito (little stick).
- Delpo had lost his six previous meetings to Roger Federer, taking only two sets off the Swiss master.
- Won his first ATP tour title in 2008 at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, going on to win three further ATP titles in the Austrian Open, the Countrywide Classic and the Legg Mason Tennis Classic to become the first player in ATP history to win his first four career titles in as many tournaments.
- 2008 was a windfall year for the Argentine as he embarked on a run of 23 consecutive victories, the longest winning streak by a player outside the top 10 in the last 20 years.
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