Juan Martin Del Potro not only defeated the No. 1 player in tennis on a memorable Thursday afternoon in Miami. A young talent on the ATP Tour beat back the odds with a display of uncommon resolve.
In order to appreciate the biggest win of Del Potro’s life–a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) triumph over Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open–one needs to realize that the sixth seed used the kinds of tools few observers thought he possessed.
Yes, Del Potro owns formidable groundstrokes and a powerful backcourt game–that reality was never in dispute. The one nicknamed “Delpo” unleashed those very weapons to take the first set against Nadal, who was trying to pull off the Indian Wells-Miami double for the first time since Roger Federer turned the trick in 2006.
One set, however, doesn’t represent very much of a lead against the toughest competitor on the planet. Before Del Potro could blink, Nadal swiped the second set and then rolled to a 3-0, double-break advantage in the final set. Anyone who thought the Argentine had a prayer at that point was either a loyal native of Buenos Aires or a deluded fool.
Nadal just doesn’t blow double-break leads in final sets. Even more to the point, Del Potro–who quit in a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 loss to Federer in January’s Australian Open quarterfinals–lacked the reputation of a grinder, a man who could battle through adversity as well as he could outhit inferior opponents under optimal occasions. When Nadal jumped to a huge lead near the end of this match, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Nadal would advance to the semifinals for a tantalizing matchup with either Andy Murray or Fernando Verdasco.
Just when Del Potro’s Miami obituary was about to be written, the Argentine flipped the script in shocking fashion.
Nadal took his foot off the gas in the next two games, as Delpo combined a break and a hold to close within 3-2. Nadal might have lacked an extra degree of security, but he still possessed a break lead. The smart money remained with Rafa as the third set continued.
Del Potro wasn’t buying into the conventional wisdom, and in the sixth game of the final set, he made the kind of statement that could ripple through the rest of his career.
With Del Potro earning a break point in that sixth game, Nadal typically dictated a long rally and seemed set to escape to the security of deuce. The Argentine begged to differ, as a man bereft of pure footspeed found the will to chase down several Nadal shots before smacking a superb running forehand to retrieve a drop shot from the Spaniard. The authoritative reply at the end of a rally that exceeded 15 strokes leveled the match at 3-all. Far more importantly, the point showed that Del Potro could hustle and compete with a level of vigor equal to that of his far more credentialed foe.
The next 30 minutes, instead of witnessing a victory celebration by Nadal, instead allowed a giddy crowd to revel in a thrilling encounter between a proven champion and a transformed challenger who spilled his intestines on the hardcourts of South Florida. Nadal and Del Potro traded body blows until a missed forehand volley by Nadal gave the Argentine two match points at 6-5.
As amazing as the match had been until that point in time, the fun was just starting in Key Biscayne.
Nadal, the bravest and most resilient big-point player alive, thumped an ace to save his first match point before a nervous Del Potro netted an emphatic backhand. The Agentine saved a game point to earn a third match point, but once again, a booming serve from Nadal erased the threat. The Mallorcan master refused to go gently, holding for 6-all and a do-or-die tiebreak.
The two men kept raising the bar in terms of clutch shotmaking, even while the tension escalated. As the tiebreak continued, it would be Del Potro who found still more resources while Nadal hit a wall.
At 2-all in the tiebreak, everyone at the sprawling stadium court in Crandon Park saw the three points that defined this deathmatch at dusk. In the first point of the sequence, Nadal–like Roger Federer on Wednesday night against Andy Roddick–watch the net cord help him win a point for 3-2. Such a stomach punch figured to overwhelm Delpo, but the Argentine merely answered on the next two points with sensational poise and power. With Nadal serving at 3-2, Del Potro retrieved a mediocre drop shot from Nadal to force a backhand error from the Spaniard. At 3-all, a long and drawn-out rally of over 20 strokes ended with the Argentine blasting a picture-perfect forehand to the corner of the court. When Del Potro shrugged off a bit of bad luck to win the next two points on Nadal’s serve, a 4-3 lead felt even more comfortable. Three authoritative points closed out the tiebreak, and in a flash, an upset was birthed in the fading twilight.
Besides quitting roughly two months ago against Federer, Del Potro also got dusted by Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Indian Wells event just two weeks earlier. A 6-2, 6-4 loss left a young man wondering if he’d ever topple a giant in the world of men’s tennis.
Now, the landscape looks very different, as a promising professional knows that he can not only win at the highest level, but compete with the courage of a champion.
If this man does, in time, manage to win a Grand Slam title down the road, there will be no doubt about the moment when Juan Martin Del Potro turned the corner: On April 2, 2009, against a legendary champion who was equaled not only in skill, but far more importantly, in the matters of the spirit.
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