As soon as this match showed up on the schedule of play, thousands of pencils (perhaps virtual ones) circled it as one to watch. By the time it was over, with Tomas Berdych winning 7-6,6-2, everyone could agree with Berdych’s statement to Del Potro at the net, “glad to see you back.”
It’s a strange thing to see Berdych face Del Potro, as both share a great deal of similarities in the way they play — big guys with big groundstrokes, and good movement for their size. When firing on all cylinders, either can hit through just about anyone else on the tour. But it can be ugly when the shots aren’t connecting. Today, it was often more a case of the latter — errors, and double faults, in particular, cost Del Potro dearly. But there were moments, particularly late in the first set, where the blistering forehand to forehand tennis was the “Big Dude Tennis” that has not quite managed to take over the sport as anticipated.
It’s tempting to wonder whether either Berdych or Del Potro would trade places with the other. Berdych has been able, by and large, to be a consistent presence on the tour for more than a decade, but he has not been able to capture the biggest titles. Del Potro, on the other hand, won the U.S. Open and an Olympic bronze medal, but has spent more time injured than in the thick of competition in recent years. I suspect that, on a day to day basis, it has been easier to be Tomas Berdych than Juan Martin Del Potro in recent years. As much as not winning titles and Grand Slams can be frustrating, tennis has an ability to turn the page that gives players the chance to win the next one before the last loss (or victory) can sink in too far. Being off the tour gives a player nothing but time to wonder whether those chances will ever come again.
Thankfully, for Del Potro, that worry can now be replaced by the constant work of improving his results. What looked good for him was, unsurprisingly, the whipsaw forehand that he was able to blast by Berdych on many occasions. The backhand, on the other hand, still requires some work. It’s unclear whether the lack of power on that side is borne of caution or a change in technique, but it is a liability when playing the better movers and ball strikers on the tour. For Berdych, this was a should-win. While Berdych — and many of his colleagues in the top 10 — may not fare well against those above him in the rankings, he usually manages to hold his own against those below him. Today, against Del Potro, Berdych didn’t play his best, but he was consistent enough to win against Del Potro’s work in progress.
At times the match had an unreal quality to it — as if we were given a chance to see what an alternate universe where the big hard hitters won the battle for tour dominance over the variety of Federer and the singular game of Nadal would look like. And for stretches of this match, it was breathtaking. But for the cruel twist of the injury fates that befell Del Potro, it could have easily been so. So now, as he attempts once again to reach his former heights, not even his opponent can’t resist wishing him well.