Juan Martin Del Potro beat Andy Roddick in the Countrywide Classic final today and one of the “new big” players rises up the rankings.
Three 19 year olds, all tall, all born within a month of each other, all ranked in the top forty on the professional tennis tour: Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, and Ernests Gulbis. I haven’t even had time to think about which one would get their first slam or even if one of them would win a slam, and now one of them has broken out.
Del Potro beat Andy Roddick to win the title at the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles today and maybe I’ve been spending too much time watching the Olympic opening ceremonies. Maybe the need for each and every event to symbolize a significant passing has gripped my brain. But to my thinking, Del Potro’s victory is significant. Roddick was the big player – literally –when he came along at 6’2”(187cm), but the young trio is part of the new big: Del Potro and Cilic are 6’6”(198cm), and Gulbis, well, he’s an inch taller than Roddick at 6’3”(190cm). Of course size isn’t everything, but these guys move better than the old big too.
Roddick dismissed the notion that a group of young players is now taking over (probably out of frustration at losing the match to one of them) as follows:
I always get a kick out it when everyone acts shocked when young players start winning matches. Like it hasn’t been happening for the last 100 years.
But he did agree on the key point:
I think the biggest thing is that these guys are huge. I remember when I was big, once upon a time. As far as tennis stands, these guys are all six foot six and higher. I think that’s a more interesting story than someone being 19 years old.
Well maybe, but age may be the significance of Del Potro’s win. We’ve been talking about Federer losing the number one ranking but Roddick has slipped down the rankings to number nine because he’s been struggling with injuries. After a very good spring that included beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in Dubai and Federer in Miami, he’s been having some shoulder problems and he had to drop out of Cincinnati after waking up with a stiff neck and shoulder:
He skipped the Olympics to concentrate on the US Open by playing here and in Washington next week and it’s true that he’s played well this year when he’s been healthy, but Andy Murray has already jumped past him to become the fourth best prospect to win the US Open, and Roddick hasn’t reached a semifinal in a slam since the Australian Open last year. This year his slam results consist of a third round at the Australian and a second round at Wimbledon.
I’ll give Roddick a quarterfinal result at the US Open at best and I’m not sure about that. He’ll probably get his ranking up in the fall season but my guess is that he’s more likely to get to the year end championships as the number seven or eighth ranked player, not the sixth or higher ranking he’s had for the past year.
Speaking of symbolism, by the way, potro means colt in Spanish. Besides referring to a young male horse, the word can also mean young and inexperienced. For that reason I thought Del Potro had a chance to beat Roddick today, but I didn’t expect it to be in straight sets and I certainly wasn’t looking for a 6-1 score in the first set. That’s a bit misleading because Roddick couldn’t find his serve and had treatment for lower back stiffness towards the end of the set, but Del Potro was cracking the ball and even Roddick said, “I could have played really well and I’m not sure if it would have mattered.”
I asked Roddick who was more likely to reach a slam out of the tall trio and he chose Del Potro because he plays more consistently. I guess so. Del Potro has now won three straight tournaments and they were the first titles of his career. Has anyone ever done that before? Anyone know?
That kind of streak means that a player has entered the zone and taken up residence and it certainly looked like it today. Calmness is the overarching trait of a player in the zone and Del Potro calmly walked from one end of the baseline to the other even as Roddick improved his serving percentage to almost 70% in the second set while Del Potro’s level of play dipped. You may not play lights out 100% of the time when you’re in the zone, but you don’t care because you know you will be soon enough and that’s what happened in the second set tiebreaker.
Roddick should have had the advantage in the tiebreaker because his serve was working, but with Roddick serving at 2-3, Del Potro got a 135mph (217kph) serve back in play and the two of them rallied until Roddick coughed up a forehand error to go down a minibreak. Roddick lost the next point on his serve too and Del Potro served out to win the match, 6-1, 7-6(2).
I asked Del Potro, as we all did, what precipitated his current streak of excellence and he did give us an answer: he has a new coach as of February, Franco Davin, and he is now much calmer on court. Del Potro speaks English but not well enough to get into the gritty details – what exactly has Davin changed, for instance? I kick myself in situations like this because I don’t speak enough Spanish and I’d really like to pick his brain about it.
Gulbis has already lost his first round match at the Olympics and Cilic is in the middle of his first match as I write this. Del Potro will be the number two seed at Washington next week while Roddick will be the number one seed. We’ll see if the young colt can continue the trend.