With a booming serve, flat, powerful groundstrokes and impressive mobility to boot, Juan Martin del Potro should be extremely successful at the All England Club. Yet, oddly, Wimbledon is the major at which the Argentine has traditionally flopped.
A US Open champion in 2009, as well as a former French Open semi-finalist and twice Australian Open quarter-finalist, del Potro’s best result at SW19 was a trip to the fourth round last year, with his previous three visits ending in second round exits.
Yet slowly but surely, the world No.9’s belief in his grass-court game continues to increase. He is back in the second week and, unlike last year’s run at Wimbledon, he has improved with each victory. The latest was today’s clinical 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-1 dismissal of Kei Nishikori, maintaining his perfect head-to-head record against the No.19 seed.
“I still prefer the hard court,” he admitted with a smile. “But it is good if I have time to play on grass and also for the Olympics. I'm playing better day to day, training hard on grass court for this tournament. If you win matches [on grass], the sensation is more comfortable for me.”
Del Potro immediately set to work imposing his damaging game on the Japanese player. Although his mighty serve and forehand were clicking, he showed he wasn’t all brute power, with a winning lob, effective sliced backhands and a clever drop-shot helping him to break serve early.
It was a deficit from which Nishikori was unable to recover. Del Potro’s power from the back of the court proved devastating as he built a 5-2 lead, and two games later it was again the Argentine’s serve and forehand that dictated proceedings – an ace followed by a forehand winner saw him clinch the opening set.
When Del Potro broke again to lead 3-1 in the second, it appeared Nishikori would bid a hasty exit. Perhaps he was suffering lingering rust at not having played a tournament in two months due to an abdominal injury.
But suddenly, a little more consistency – plus some extra pop on his own forehand – helped the Japanese gain a better foothold in the rallies. A forcing forehand in the eighth game helped him break back to level scores at 4-4, and the capacity crowd on No.1 Court cheered loudly. They had a match on their hands.
The usually serene Del Potro became irritated by the gusty conditions and his increasingly erratic play. When the set progressed to a tie-break and Nishikori gained an early mini-break, the 19th seed had all the momentum.
“The condition was horrible. But it was [the same] for both player, so [I was] trying to think about that. If I make a mistake, he can make a mistake also. If we have an important moment, I [told myself I] should play better than him if I want to win the match. That's it,” Del Potro said.
A simple philosophy, yet ultimately effective. He regained control with a shot that hit the net tape and died on the other side, before loosening up to smack his way to a 5-3 lead. Nishikori then gifted him a bundle of set points with limp backhand into net.
Del Potro’s ninth ace to secure the set dropped Nishikori into an ever-deepening hole. And the Argentine ensured he wouldn’t climb out of it, establishing a 3-0 lead in the third set with an early service break. Nishikori was deflated, as his mounting error tally showed. He surrendered another service break in the sixth game, and Del Potro made no mistake when serving for the match in the next game, icing victory with yet another ace.
“I think that was my best match in this week also. I play really aggressive, trying to hit the ball really hard, and I took all my break points,” he said.
“That's important to have the control of the match [so I] play more focus and more relax also.”
He will get the chance to record a career-best result at the All England Club when he takes on No.7 seed David Ferrer in the last 16 on Monday.