Juan Martin del Potro’s biggest weapon is his forehand. You know it, I know it, everyone else does too. Yet, he only produced five winners from that wing in a four-set match that lasted two hours and seven minutes, compared to 21 by his opponent on Tuesday, Nicolas Jarry. The two men also split the ace count at 11 each. But don’t let these stats fool you. This was a very fine outing by the eighth-seeded Argentine. He essentially played one mediocre game the whole match, the second game of the first set that he began with a double fault, causing him to go down a break and eventually lose the first set against an in-form adversary.
For the rest of the match, Del Potro rarely erred on big points and turned to ball placement rather than blasting winners as he does when he is in a groove. There was a good reason for him to settle on that strategy.
Let’s start with the cranky weather conditions, for instance. Drastic changes in weather occurred throughout each set. Before the first point was played, rain came, forcing the players to wait a few minutes. Once they started, the drizzle came back, then left, then came back a bit harder, only to turn to sunshine by the time the set ended. The second set was mostly played in sunny conditions, even turning quite humid at one point. Next, clouds arrived around the second game of the third set, followed by a nasty wind that swirled in any direction it could throughout the rest of the third set. It was only in the fourth set that ideal weather conditions were reached, partly sunny and pleasant.
That meant players needed to adjust. For potent ball strikers such as Del Potro and Jarry, it also meant they could not necessarily get their feet set for every ball in order to lean forward and nail winners. For the most part, Jarry handled it “okay.” Del Potro, for his part, handled it exceptionally well.
When caught on defense, Delpo simply tried to get the ball back deep instead of going for huge winners on the run as he often likes to do. He did not attempt to blast winners or aces when he managed to get his feet set, but instead aimed for placement while still remaining aggressive. There are many examples of these types of points throughout the match in Juan Martin’s favor, but to avoid boring you with a long list, I will simply point to the last game of the match at 5-4 in the fourth set for two glaring examples of Juan Martin’s strategy.
The game began with Juan Martin’s first serve cleverly placed to the outside corner of the service box. Del Potro did not aim for the line, did not go for an ace. It was just enough to pull Jarry off the court. On the Chilean’s return, Del Potro had a perfect chance to go for the flat winner on his forehand to the ad side. Instead, he hit a three-quarter-pace forehand, placing it deep to the ad corner, and followed it up to the net. This was a perfect example of 1-2 punch that puts one in control of the point. Jarry had no choice but to lob high and deep. Del Potro hit a solid overhead close to the baseline (not going for the straight warp-speed nine overhead winner) in the open deuce side of the court. Jarry got his racket on it but could not get it back in the court — perfect execution under uncertain conditions.
Two points later at 30-15, Jarry hit a deep high return that bounced above Del Potro’s shoulder and caught him backing up slightly. He hit a hard forehand, but not for a winner. He placed it to the middle of the court, close to the baseline, catching Jarry just enough off-balance to cause a forehand error wide. Del Potro employed these types of clever tactics throughout the match.
End result: Del Potro hit only 9 unforced errors total (by my count) in the first three sets, which is quite remarkable under wildly fluctuating, nightmarish weather conditions that should normally cause discomfort to any player, forcing one to hit many shots off balance. In those same three sets, while Juan Martin hit only 5 aces, his first-serve percentage recorded at 64%, 78%, and 76%. Masterful adjustment again by the big Argentine!
Addendum: During his post-match press conference, I asked Del Potro if such a strategy – playing with more reserve, not continuously attempting winners, but aiming for placement and depth – was part of his strategy due to the weather conditions. He confirmed it (he was already nodding while I was asking the question) and added that he never played Jarry before, so the combination of that and the weather caused him to start apprehensively.
Delpo commented on how he is usually the one controlling points in his matches, but against Jarry, he had to sometimes resort to just keeping the ball back and deep, because of the Chilean’s shotmaking prowess, and wait for him to miss under the conditions. He said that “in specific moments of the match” he played aggressively and “broke [Jarry’s] serve many times.”
Jarry, for his part, did not play a “bad match,” so to speak. He played “a few bad games.” This has been my observation for as long as I have watched Jarry, who — in my opinion — has tremendous potential otherwise and a bright future. At certain points in matches, he will have a fairly notable dip in his game and string a few errors in a row. He usually perseveres and recovers quickly, but by the time the dip ends, the opponent has gained confidence thanks to the break obtained during the dip. This is what essentially happened to Jarry in each set. Even in the first set, when he went up a break, he suddenly made three dismal forehand errors in a row to go down 0-40 in the 4-2 game (very unusual for how well he played in the previous six games). He found a way to dig out of that game and held, but that can only work once or twice against a powerhouse such as del Potro.
In the second set, he hit a forehand from inside the baseline deep, made a second forehand unforced error on an otherwise routine inside-out shot, and found himself down 0-30. Although he got back to 30-30, he lost his serve for the first time in the match after another forehand unforced error in the net at 30-30, and a double fault on break point. Just like that, del Potro went up 2-0 and never looked back. In the third set, serving at 1-2, Jarry again made two unforced forehand errors and two double faults to go down a break and never won another game. In the fourth set, another forehand unforced error at 0-30 in the 1-1 game put him down three break points, a hole from which he could not get out of this time. Del Potro carried that break all the way to the end of the match, eventually winning in four sets.
To reiterate my point above, outside of those few error-prone games, Jarry played a solid match himself. He hit 30 winners and won 18 out of 23 points when he attacked the net. He was the one directing traffic for the majority of the match. He just did not remain as steady throughout the match as his opponent, which could also be explained by the fact that he may not have adjusted to the weather changes as well as Juan Martin did.
Del Potro will face the left-handed Yoshihito Nishioka next, and if his performance on Tuesday is any indication, Nishioka could be in for a long day of covering a lot of real estate on red clay – which he can. But assuming the match will be played under better conditions than this one (hard to assume otherwise, honestly), del Potro should be able to generate more power and exude more confidence.
He said that he was pleased with his performance against Jarry – “Throughout the match, I felt better”; “I close the match much better than the beginning” – and that he was, overall, “playing well at the moment.”
As for his knee, Juan Martin remains cautious, but optimistic:
“I’m feeling well. I’m practicing regularly. I play matches. I have played already three tournaments up to now […] But I’m in a period of transition, rehabilitation of my knee and reaching perfect health state and trying to focus again on tennis and results.”
If anything, Tuesday’s match must have added to Juan Martin’s self-belief. Judging by his comments, it did just that. He tackled the challenges thrown at him by his opponent and the conditions with an unyielding approach, and earned a well-deserved victory thanks to a high-IQ performance.