Juan Martin Del Potro beat David Nalbandian in Madrid and may be on the way to passing him in the rankings too..

Juan Martin Del Potro broke David Nalbandian in the first game of their match in the Masters Series event in Madrid with a running passing shot down the line. Nalbandian had run Del Potro to one side of the court then the other and come to the net, but he gave up on the passing shot because he didn’t think it was going in. He knows how good Del Potro is, we all do, but Del Potro shot into the top ten so quickly that we’re all having trouble really believing it.

Eleven players have won four titles as teenagers and 10 of them went on to reach the number one ranking. I wonder which one didn’t reach number one. Anyone know? Any guesses?

I do know that none of them won their first four tournaments in a row as Del Potro did this summer and that was the shocking thing. This spring I was wondering what had happened to Del Potro. I knew he was tall and he had a killer backhand, but I’d been following the other young players Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic and for good reason. Djokovic won a slam and Murray has been in the top 20 for much of the year while Del Potro was ranked number 81 at one point this year.

By the time Del Potro got to Los Angeles in early August, he’d already won two tournaments in a row and we asked him, as often as we could and in as many different ways as we could: What happened? What did he do? What did he change? How did he explain his sudden run up the rankings? His English isn’t great and he’s not the most expansive talker so most of the answers were variations of this: I changed my coach and he changed my conditioning.

That second one is a biggie because Del Potro is the king of match retirements – I stopped counting them already – and one of them was highly consequential. His retirement against James Blake in the Las Vegas round robin event last year toned the death knell for round robin events when ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers momentarily passed Blake onto the next round despite the fact that he hadn’t won enough games to advance because Del Potro retired. This pissed everyone off and showed that de Villiers didn’t understand the format he’d introduced to the tour. Thanks a lot Juan Martin, I actually loved round robins. It’s all your fault!

His new coach may have improved Del Potro’s conditioning but I did notice that he took off for Argentina and skipped both Masters Series events in Toronto and Cincinnati after winning those two clay court events in Europe. He also gave Philipp Kohlschreiber a walkover in Vienna last week because he split a toenail.

Del Potro is a fragile guy physically and much of his maturity has been a process of coming into his body. He’s 6’6” (198cm) and he’s had breathing issues and other niggling problems but no big injuries, just enough to knock him out of a tournament one week and let him turn up the next week to try again. It’s almost as if someone came along and tied him to one of those stretching racks you see in old horror movies and then slowly turned the crank over the period of a few years. Along the way, each little bit of his body had to fill out and adjust to every new inch and there were some aches and pains along the way, but when he reached his final height, he popped off that stretching rack and out of the lab and, bam!, he won four straight tournaments and he hasn’t stopped climbing the rankings yet.

Nalbandian hit an approach into the net to lose a second service game and go down 0-3. He got one of those breaks back but Del Potro closed out the first set and he did it in style with a 22 stroke rally that looked like Nalbandian in his prime. You can see it at the end of the video above. He’s not as strong as Nalbandian but he’s got a better serve and he uses his height to smash winners at extreme angles.

I’m curious about the relationship between Del Potro and Nalbandian. Del Potro hit a shot right at Nalbandian’s body in the first set – Nalbandian threw him a look – and their post-match meeting at the net was cursory at best. It’s certainly not the same relationship that Carlos Moya has with his young charge and fellow Davis Cup teammate Rafael Nadal and that’s a bit surprising because Del Potro is the bright young light of Nalbandian’s Argentina and these days, players are so loved dovey with each other that I expected a bit more love at the net. And Moya doesn’t seem to begrudge Nadal his success even though Moya is slipping down the rankings at this point in his career.

If Nalbandian were a bit jealous of Del Potro, I’d understand because Del Potro has done the one thing that always frustrated us about Nalbandian – win tournaments. Four years after Nalbandian won his first title, he had five titles to his name and none of them were Masters Series events except for the Tennis Masters Cup in 2005, the highlight of his career. This is the sixth straight year he’s spent significant time in the top ten and he has one slam final to show for it plus the Madrid and Paris title last year.

Del Potro started the second set off the same way he started the first set, with a break of serve, this time on a Nalbandian error. Nalbandian gave him another break on a double fault to put Del Potro up 5-2 and that was that.

In the past four years Nalbandian had two semifinals, a final, and a title in Madrid, but his string of good results ended today and it was a significant event. He beat Del Potro here last year in their only previous meeting. Nalbandian said that his focus at the moment is preparing for the Davis Cup final against Spain to be held in Argentina after the Tennis Masters Cup. Del Potro was the Argentinean who won both his matches in the Davis Cup semifinals this year, not Nalbandian, and it’s likely that trend will continue.

Will Del Potro go with the odds and make it to number one at some point in his career? In the immediate future he’d have to overtake Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic – who lost to Ivo Karlovic today and may have blown his chance at overtaking Federer this year, and Andy Murray.

Del Potro will outlast Federer, he’s better on clay than Murray, and he has a chance to be almost as consistent as Djokovic on all surfaces – two of Del Potro’s four wins this year were on clay, two on outdoor hard court. So I’ll say he can sneak into the number one ranking for at least a week over those three players. I’m also going to say that this was a career year for Nadal and though he’ll hold onto the number one ranking for a while, it won’t be the five years that Federer held it.

I know your answer already Sakhi, and I’ve already lost enough bets with you, but I’m going with a yes on this guy. Del Potro will find himself at number one at some point in his career. If 10 out of 11 players who won four events as teenagers reached number one, those odds are too good to pass up.

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