Indian Wells Final Juan Martin del Potro Defeats Roger Federer Where the Dark Side Thrives

del Potro

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Juan Martin del Potro’s 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 victory over Roger Federer in the BNP Paribas Open Final 2018 shed light on what both men are capable of in very challenging circumstances and gave us a glimpse into the darker side of two very popular champions. 

When you lift a heavy rock or stone, the kind only the strongest, most curious, and most determined dare attempt to pick up, and peer into the dark which lies beneath, even in the most beautiful of settings, spiders scurry out, snakes slide into the grass, maybe, even, somewhere deep inside you, a monster to break free. Juan Martin del Potro, when his wrists can take it, never shies away from lifting those rocks and turning them over. Rocks and stones of the tennis world, the size, stature and status of, in this year’s Indian Wells final, defending champion Roger Federer, and when they come for him, the spiders, snakes and monsters, del Potro does anything but jump back and let the rock crash down on his hands.

Marin Cilic in Melbourne had a peek under the Federer rock, and saw a spider or two. Borna Coric, in the Indian Wells semis, got his shoulders well under that rock and a snake snuck out. del Potro, though, went ahead and lifted that rock right up, sent the spiders and the snakes scurrying and sliding around his feet, and the monsters jumping all over him, and del Potro did not buckle. Instead, he threw the rock and left it thrown, the Argentine emboldened no doubt by having survived it all before versus Federer, most infamously in his celebrated come from behind five set win over Federer in the US Open 2009 final.

del Potro’s serve and forehand, two of the most monstrous shots out there, are two factors which have tipped Federer over the edge in their matches. Two shots which have themselves, when coming off the Swiss’ own racket, won Federer plenty of matches, but, shots, which when the Swiss comes up against them in the form of del Potro, particularly on the forehand side, the Swiss has to accept he is second best, the brutality and precision of del Potro’s shots reminding Federer he is, in relative terms at least, a little human, that the Tennis Gods blessed others equally, if not even more generously, with all time great shots, even allowing other players to out hit him on the game’s Olympus like settings such as the Arthur Ashe stadium at a time when the then top seeded Federer himself had a seat at the peak, and was on the verge of winning six trophies in a row.

That 2009 US Open breakout win for del Potro was nine and a half years ago now. Back then, in 2009, Federer and Nadal were, as they are now, the big guns on the tour, the future of Djokovic as an all time Great was in doubt, and Murray had not proven he was slam champ material yet, but del Potro announced himself as a player to pay attention to when he did what few dared and won, beating Nadal and Federer back to back to win a slam. Other men got one of them but could not do the double- Soderling at Roland Garros 2009, Murray in New York 2008- but del Potro was the man most equipped of all to do it, possessing not just the shots- the forehand and the serve- but the mind and the heart, too.

del Potro had everything in seemed. Except for one thing it turned out. The most important thing of them all, too: his health.

del Potro’s wrist injuries – and he has been unlucky enough to have both wrists come under the surgeon’s scalpel- have derailed his career not once but four times, forcing him off the tour in 2010 and to undergo surgery, only for him to climb back to the world top 10 in 2012 and then the top five in 2013.  If that were not enough of a mountain to climb for one professional athlete’s career, another wrist injury hit del Potro in 2014, keeping him off tour more or less permanently for another two seasons, the Argentine finally coming back, three more surgeries later at Delray Beach ’16 and going on to make the Olympic final a few months later, and this time, the Tennis Gods feeling kind, allowing del Potro to stay back and move up, really reestablishing himself again, back where it all began, when he beat Federer on the way to the 2017 US Open semis, and then keeping his form rolling all the way to his first ATP 1000 title seven months later.

The Lows and Highs of Juan Martin del Potro’s career:

Time/ event Career Low Career High
Oct 9th 2006 Breaks into the top 100.
Oct 6th 2008 Breaks into the top 10.
Sep 13th 2009 Won the US Open, reaches No. 5 in the world.
Jan 11th 2010 Reaches career high ranking of 4.
2010 A right wrist injury picked up in early January means del Potro pulls out of Indian Wells and misses all the ATP 1000s that season and 3 of the 4 slams. Has first wrist surgery.
31st January 2011 Ranking falls to 485.
Indian Wells 2011 Reaches SF and climbs back to 51
30th Jan 2012 Climbs back to No.10.
Wimbledon 2013 Reaches semi-final.
27th Jan 2014 Back to No.4 in the world.
2014 Injures his left wrist and forced to skip all slams and ATP 1000s. Undergoes second surgery.
16th February 2015 Falls to world no.621.
Miami 2015 Returns to the tour, but is absent for the rest of the season and undergoes third and fourth, and most recent, surgery.
8th February 2016 Falls to world ranking of 1045.
Delray Beach 2016 Returns to the tour.
US Open 2016 Reaches quarter finals.
Rio 2016 Reaches Final.
US Open 2017 Makes US Open semis.
Jan 15th 2018 Breaks back into the top ten.
March 19th 2018 Wins first ATP 1000 title.

In his up and down career, Indian Wells has been about as stable an event as it gets for del Potro and the season’s opening ATP 1000 tournament is, after this recent title win, del Potro’s best ATP 1000. He made four consecutive quarter final appearances there (’09, 11-13), his most consistent streak at an ATP 1000, and has a 77% winning percentage, his best of the 9 ATP 1000s, and has a 24-7 win-loss record.  (del Potro is 96-50 lifetime in ATP 1000s, has appeared in 52 events in total, and, since winning the US Open 2009, has competed in 35 tournament s and missed 40.)

Breathing a champion’s life in to a career in which the numbers don’t just not lie but break your heart with the truth, del Potro took the first set 6-4 versus an off key Federer, the Argentine leaving no stone unturned in his game, too, hitting not just his signature serve and forehands at their peak, but playing his backhand better than at any time in his comeback, a shot still not back to where it was, but the Argentine able to both slice and come over it, decisively and with conviction, and, as well as being strong off the serve and the ground, del Potro came to the net to finish off points, his aggression and control from the baseline making his forays look so easy as he took the match to Federer with all the authority and aplomb he would need if he was going to beat him in straights for the first time in his career.

For the Federer fans out there, and the stands were packed with them, there was still no real need to get a stiff drink to cool down in the desert heat just yet– as well as never having lost to del Potro in straights, Federer had lost the first sets in their last two matches in Basel and Shanghai and gone on to win the match, and he had shown in his run to the final he did not need to be at his best to win, just better than his rival when it mattered, and Federer managed that, again, when in the second set tiebreak, the defending champion held three set points at 6-3.

del Potro looked like he was the one who needed cooling down, now as he roared at the crowd for calling out between serves and points, and at the umpire for not calling them out on their less than genteel behavior, and it was not the first time del Potro has gotten upset with Federer fans making the tough task of beating the Swiss even more so. Not often does the famously mild mannered gentle giant of the sport bang his fists on the table and shout “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”, but just as del Potro gets under Federer’s skin, the same is true vice versa, and the two seemed to set each other off with Federer then complaining about del Potro and his behavior.

Federer soon had plenty more to complain about, himself. The Swiss, serving at 6-5,  seemed to have won the second set with a service winner, and roared out in approval, but del Potro challenged the serve, in his usual leisurely way, meaning that by the time Hawk eye showed the ball was out, Federer was left to hit his second serve with fans moving around the stadium, line umpires, ball boys and his opponent settling back into position, and a little too much time, for someone of Federer’s speed, lapsing between serves, the match in disarray, a state which seeped into the Federer serve as he then double faulted for 6-6 , and the Swiss berated the umpire Fergus Murphy for letting the judges and del Potro proceed like a normal changeover when so much was on the line.

The tiebreak back on even footing,  a few firsts for del Potro were within striking distance- winning an ATP 1000, beating Federer in straights, and beating him in the first seven months of the season- as the Argentine saved another set point with a service winner, and then hit another service winner for championship point on the Federer serve.

del Potro could not have hoped for more than a second serve and a shot at hitting a forehand winner, and he got both. The court open on his inside out forehand, del Potro, his forehand now prone to the same stutters under pressure as the Federer serve, netted the shot. The forehand then stumbled again when after a ripping del Potro forehand return and one cross-court, the Argentine sent the forehand passing shot wide.

Set point down, del Potro’s forehand was working for him again setting up an approach to the net, but this time his volley, one shot which gave him an extra edge this match, let him down as it went wide and Federer leveled the match at a set all.

Those two missed forehands cast a cloud over del Potro, who admitted as much after the match, and Federer took control of the match at 4-4 in the third set, breaking del Potro, and the Swiss served for the championship, the match looking set to be written into the record books as another three set tussle with del Potro survived. But, somewhat inexplicably – Federer would himself ask in his press conference after the match “what the hell happened?”-  the Swiss’ serve deserted him when he held two championship points.

A calmer del Potro broke back with another one of those forehands doing the damage, and the two rivals held serve to contest a final set tiebreaker, one which del Potro, in another twist, dominated as Federer continued to implode on the serve, and del Potro did what del Potro does, hung in and hung tough, and then did what he usually does not- won an ATP 1000.

del Potro’s first ATP 1000 win shone a little light on, for those who like to play such games, what might have been if he had been able to compete in those 40 ATP 1000s missed since New York ’09.

The brightest light it shone, though, was on what creature lurks beneath both del Potro’s and Federer’s typically sunny dispositions, and what did we see creep out and bare its fangs?

What we saw was the two men’s raw competitive instinct and desire to compete and win in its darkest, most provoked, fang baring form; the muddy underbelly of what fuels our sport’s most popular champions to win 20 slams and compete as No.1 aged 36; the raw unbridled passion for the sport which drives our champions to keep coming back, from four wrist surgeries no less, and keep going when their bodies beg them not to, but their champion’s mind and heart, still with so much more to give, refuse to listen. What we saw was the dark side of champion’s hearts and minds thriving, and in the heat of it all, in the thick of it, as it merged with the beauty and the entertainment of the tennis and gave us as whole a match as we are likely to see, we thrived, too.

“I’m still shaking” said del Potro in the trophy ceremony, and no one was surprised considering the creatures he had just unearthed, set loose and then faced down. Spiders which had scurried all over the court. Snakes sliding in and out of his own intimidating, looming shadow as it boomed down serves and crushed forehands and came over on backhands. Monsters his victory sent hurrying away back under the rock now lodged firmly back in the ground, now glistening as del Potro and Federer congratulated one another with smiles while a new rock-like form took center stage alongside its new champion, this formation one of the tennis world’s more precious stones, and now lifted by one of its most deserving players, this one giving off plenty of light, the Indian Wells trophy, now in the arms of del Potro.


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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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