by Matt Zemek
Juan Martin del Potro might not have expected Frances Tiafoe to win the Delray Beach title after the 20-year-old won a round-of-16 encounter with the Tower of Tandil on Thursday in Florida.
Chances are, Delpo didn’t really care.
It is generally comforting for a player to know that his conqueror didn’t waste the upset by capitulating in the next match. How much more reassuring it could be to del Potro that his victorious opponent rode Thursday’s win to the championship ceremony on Sunday afternoon.
Yet, that small grain of consolation doesn’t matter much to Delpo. He is all too familiar with the experience of losing to champions.
He has had to push through the Big Three for many years at the majors, only occasionally beating them. He lost to Andy Murray in the 2016 Olympic Gold Medal Match in Rio. With his ranking comparatively low due to years missed on tour, he had to face Novak Djokovic AND Roger Federer before the round of 16 in Indian Wells and Miami in 2017. Between injuries and draw luck, Delpo has run into some brick walls. Losing to champions is a very familiar experience for the Argentine.
He lost to the eventual champion (Federer) in the Shanghai semis and in the Basel final. He lost to the eventual champion (Nadal) in the U.S. Open semifinals. One year earlier in New York, at the 2016 U.S. Open, Delpo lost to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. He is a magnet for championship opponents.
Now, approaching age 30, he knows that he needs to create a new springtime in a very real sense.
Delpo has seen Wawrinka and others blossom on the ATP Tour at and past age 30. He is also in a position where his career is counter intuitively stabilizing.
In 2017, Delpo played three of the four majors and seven of the nine Masters 1000 events on tour for the first time since his highly productive 2013 season. The only reason he didn’t play the Australian Open last year was his 2016 Davis Cup championship, won after a series of very long and exhausting matches in both the semifinals (September against Great Britain and Murray) and finals (in November against Marin Cilic and Croatia). Delpo had to recharge and protect his frail wrist. That decision was prudent, giving him the ability to play his most ambitious tour schedule in four years. Delpo struggled for much of that schedule, but after closing his 2016 season with 19 wins in his last 23 matches (including Davis Cup), he replicated his late-season success in 2017, winning 18 matches in a 21-match span near the end of the season: semis at the U.S. Open and in Shanghai, a win in Stockholm, a final in Basel.
This is something del Potro has a knack for. In 2013 — his last full season of play before losing 2014 and 2015 to injury — the Argentine ripped off two separate strong sequences in the second half of the season: 14-3 from Wimbledon through Cincinnati, and later, 16-2 from Tokyo through Bercy. Even before his second big injury crisis (his first being 2010), he had shown the ability to produce a strong finishing kick in a tennis season.
The first half of his tennis seasons has been a different story.
In 2012, Delpo produced one of his more balanced seasons from January to November — not his best (2009), but a season in which the calendar did not limit his effectiveness. He made the quarters or better at the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Madrid, and Roland Garros. 2009 was the only other year in which he pulled off that feat, and no other season comes close. He made the 2013 Indian Wells final, but didn’t offer other strong results in M-1000s or majors in the first half of the season.
In the last two years — 2016 and 2017 — Delpo has carved out his basic modern template: solid U.S. Open (quarters or better), followed by a productive autumn swing. Since his second major injury in 2014, he hasn’t been able to make a run in a first half of a tennis season.
Spring hasn’t yet sprung again for Delpo the way it did in 2009 and 2012. The loss to Tiafoe — in which Delpo lost 14 of 16 break points against the American’s serve — will be hard to replicate and therefore has the feel of a one-off result. Nevertheless, del Potro was probably counting on more match play in Delray, and with his ranking in the top 10, he knows he won’t have to play Djokovic or Federer or any other elite player in the early rounds of Indian Wells or Miami.
Del Potro’s sprint at the end of 2017 — combined with the fact that he hadn’t played in the Australian Open’s searing heat since 2014 — likely left him more vulnerable than he otherwise might have been at the 2018 Australian Open, where Tomas Berdych demolished him in straight sets in the third round. (Side note: I probably should have noted Delpo’s four-year absence from Melbourne when considering his chances of winning that match. I confess I did not.) Delpo’s start to 2018 isn’t what he wanted, but its surrounding circumstances offer reasonable explanations for why he hasn’t gotten out of the gate quickly.
The loss to Tiafoe in Delray Beach therefore feels less like a bad loss and more an aberration (but against a player who thoroughly deserved his first ATP title and ratcheted up excitement about his future).
The bigger picture for Delpo, however, can’t continue to have these “reasonable explanations.” The biological tennis clock is ticking, and the Indian Wells-Miami double gives the Tower of Tandil a place to show — against the backdrop of an injury-depleted ATP Tour — that he can make hay while the sun shines…
… in springtime, not just the late summer or the fall.
The moment is now for Juan Martin del Potro to create a new spring — in pursuit of one more golden period of a career which, as special as it has been, is still trying to make up for lost time.
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