Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Kids These Days
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Kids These Days 08/11/2008 - 6:34 PM

DpIn the two years that he’s been making the main-draw scene, I’ve found it hard to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Juan Martin Del Potro. At first glance, there seemed to be nothing but upside. Literally—the Argentine prodigy is 6-foot-5 and strikes the ball as cleanly from the ground as any player of any height. Throw that in with the fact that two years ago, at 18, he was the youngest player to finish in the Top 100, and last year was the youngest in the Top 50, and we seemed to have the makings of the ATP’s next juggernaut.

But there were questions. The service toss was high and the motion had a hitch that robbed him of some of the power that rightfully belongs to a man his size. The forehand backswing was loopy, and the stroke lacked the precision that’s at the core of all the world’s best shots from that wing. The guy looked a little too long—ungainly—to hit with both power and consistency. Finally, there was his youthful lack of tactical focus. Del Potro hit the ball well to every part of the court, but that’s all he did—he seemed more reactive than constructive in the way he approached points, and a little generic stylewise. It wasn’t clear whether he was good at winning, or at least beating quality opponents. Coming into Sunday’s final at the Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles, he was 1-13 against Top 10 players.

In L.A., some of those questions began to be answered. Del Potro came away with a prize scalp when he beat former No. 1 Andy Roddick in the final. More impressive was how routine he made it look; from first point to last, Del Potro was the more poised player. He dictated the action with both his serve and his return. His long arms enabled him to stab back more of Roddick’s wide deliveries than most guys can, and when the American hammered his serve into his strike zone, Del Potro had no trouble timing it, taking it early, and even getting his share of full swings at it. In the second set, he ripped one of those full swings for a crosscourt return winner. Roddick, who was testy from the start, shook his head in disbelief. How could this guy could take a “114 [mph] into the body” and treat it with such disdain?

Kids these days, huh? They’re just getting better and better. You can add Del Potro to the list of young guns making their moves this summer. This was his third straight title, after wins on clay in Stuttgart and Kitzbuhel. Del Potro obviously has a South American’s comfort on dirt, but he says his favorite surface is hard court. Part of that may be the bounce. As smooth as he is from the ground, timing is always an issue with a guy as tall as he is. Hard courts allow him not to worry about his contact point.

He couldn’t have looked any more assured in dismantling Roddick. Del Potro set the tone in the rallies without taking any chances or getting out of his comfort zone. A typical point saw him start a backhand-to-backhand rally, push Roddick deeper into that corner and force a weak slice, then run around and punish a forehand—inside-out, inside-in, he had plenty of time to decide where he wanted to drill the ball. But even when he did, there was a healthy margin for error built into those shots. His easy balance and anticipation made it look like he was playing a practice set.

Del Potro’s service toss is still too high, but he used that shot well Sunday. Rather than go for bombs, he emphasized first-serve percentage (72 percent, with just one double fault) and placement, swinging Roddick wide in the deuce court to expose his backhand on the next shot. The commentators for ESPN kept looking for a sign of nerves, but Del Potro didn’t give them any. As the second set wore on, he started to let loose more with his forehand and send the ball closer to the lines, but rarely out. Roddick never broke him, and just when Del Potro needed a big serve, at 2-2 in the second-set tiebreaker, he came up with his first ace of the match.

As for Roddick, there wasn’t much to like about this performance; he helped Del Potro in any way he could. He rarely put himself in a position where he could force the action. Instead, he spent most of his time pinned in his backhand corner chopping back uninspired slices. It’s odd to say for a guy with a game as big as Roddick’s, but he had no way to hurt Del Potro. He made no inroads with his return, where he often looped balls back from behind the baseline even on second serves. The same was true in the rallies. Roddick, even when he was given a ball to crack, couldn’t make his opponent pay a price when it counted. And on his serve, the Argentine’s got back half a dozen balls that would normally have been winners for Roddick. The American couldn’t rely on the freebies he’s always manufactured with his serve. You could see the difference.

Can we see a change in the men’s game from watching this match? I would say yes—toward size, toward backhand power, toward baseline versatility, toward all-surface skills, toward the return as a weapon of almost equal value as the serve. Roddick, of course, is the dinosaur in that formulation. It doesn’t mean the U.S.’ best player is going straight downhill, or that his serve is soon to be useless. But it does mean that a 19-year-old South American just beat him in straight sets on a hard court in a small American tournament that seemed tailor-made to give him a boost of confidence. If that’s not exactly a revolutionary event—Roddick is no longer No. 1, or even No. 5—it seems at least evolutionary. You could see it not only in the way Del Potro hit the ball, but in the way he carried himself. Nothing phased him: After a dubious injury timeout by his opponent in the first set, the Argentine came back out with the same calm focus he'd shown from the beginning and got right back to work. He still a little ungainly, and his forehand a little imprecise—I'm not prepared to put him in the Top 10 just yet—but maybe he’s going to be better at winning than I thought.


Posted by DAF 08/11/2008 at 07:01 PM

I was looking for something to read about Del Potro but I couldn't find anything among this olympic fever. Thanks, nice piece.

Posted by Kenneth 08/11/2008 at 07:10 PM

There was a match this weekend???

No really. There was?

Roddick = Hewitt. Simple as that. They never had more than one weapon each (tenacity for Hewitt, serve/fh combo for Roddick), so of course, any younger player emulating their styles would, could do it better, a nd their times in the light have likely passed. What did it mean for Hewitt? Did the marriage come first, or the descent from the elites? Whichever, Roddick is on the same path anyway, so it doesn't matter.

Good for Del Potro, though I don't know really what this says (meaning Roddick is no Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, etc). Great win though.

Posted by Carrie 08/11/2008 at 07:27 PM

Steve, thanks for this column. I have been following Del Potro for a while though and it seems like his rawness is finally beginning to come off.

One thing that used to frustrate me about him was that he could seem sad and/or mopey on court. Part of that could have been his frequent injury problems- but it seemed like for the second half of 2007 and first part of 2008 he was not enjoying himself on the court. His mentality now seems much improved- I give kudos to his new coach.

One big weakness for Juan Martin on Sunday was his volley skills. But I have seen him beable to reach down and hit some pretty nice volleys in past matches- so I wonder if that will be an area that he can maybe improve and become more consistent. With his height, reaching low will likely never be easy- but I do think he could do better at net than he did yesterday.

Posted by Joel 08/11/2008 at 07:34 PM

Andy Roddick was much more dangerous when he let his
forhand fly. Between his brother and Dean Goldfine (and possibly
Jimmy Conners, to some extent) his handlers have blunted his power
terribly. He is a top 20 player now, nothing more. That makes me sad because, at one time, I thought of him as the next-best-thing for American tennis. Now he is an also-ran. Disappointing...

Posted by Andrew Miller 08/11/2008 at 07:43 PM

Oh no! Roddick is becoming the Michael Chang (thankfully, not the Tim Mayotte) of U.S. tennis!

I think Roddick is a lot better than Chang was. I just hope this strategy of the Olympic skip helps him make it back to the USO final. But losing in the tournament built for his game is not a good sign, but it is better than Roddick losing early in a tournament - let's face it, finals are better than second round exits.

As for the Del Potro kid: I think he is pretty much symbolic of the new guard in tennis, which is not afraid of Federer/Roddick/Davydenko/Robredo/Gonzalez/Blake/Safin/Ljubicic (and throwing in Lopez, Ferrer and Verdasco for good measure, even if they havent tasted enough grand slam semifinals yet, maybe they'll do some more damage, who knows) - of the older members of the top 10 & top 20. Nadal and Djokovic are certainly the elite of this very young generation of threats to the top ten (as #1 and #3 in the world - they rule both kingdoms right now at 22 and 21 years old) but it seems that Murray, Berdych, Gasquet, Monfils, Del Potro, Gulbis, Cilic, Baghdatis - all are either ready to pounce or pouncing with authority now. Perhaps that is not quite right to say with Wimbledon having just featured Safin, Federer, Nadal, and Schuettler, basically 75 percent veterans of the tour. But with these recent results, maybe it is the changing of the guard?

It is unsettling but we may have moved into the new era already. I dont think the old guard is going to step aside and yield so easily, but life for them as veterans, with relatively few easy victories out there, must be getting harder or at least more complicated, and that includes injuries. When Roddick is playing at his best, few can stop him, but it seems to me that he hasn't been there, at his best, the 2nd half of the year. He is back in not sure what to do land, and Roddick in not sure what to do land is not the best place for him.

I appreciate mR.Tignor's analysis. It's very good and though I dont know if Del Potro's victory really makes him a legitimate us open threat because his stamina has been questionable, if he is knocking out seeds, he automatically becomes a legitimate danger to anyone he faces, seed or no seed. Before someone would probably eek out a win. But since he's playing well, now that result is in doubt.

We shall see! As Roddick would say, the potential there. But it has to be backed up out there. As Agassi would say, it's not as easy as phoning in the results.

Posted by linex 08/11/2008 at 07:46 PM


Nice article and a truthful portrait of what happened yesterday.

It is hard to know what the future will bring to Del Potro, but from the tennistic point of view he has all the tools, a good forehand, an excellent backhand, descent movement, good hands, a good serve, he is skillful at the net also, and now an improved mentality. The only downside is his body prone to injury, too thin, too tall.

It seems that his new coach is an asset for him. For those who do not know his coach is franco Davin, Gaudio´s former coach.

Posted by DAF 08/11/2008 at 07:49 PM

Joel, even though Roddick is not one of my favorites you have to acknoladge that he did (and is still doing) pretty well. End year number 1, a grand slam, several master series, davis cup. Not bad in my opinion. I think he indeed was the best next thing for American tennis the problem is that you americans are spoiled by all the great champions you had in the past.

Posted by Euphemism 08/11/2008 at 08:31 PM

I was at the Countrywide Classic and saw both Del Potro's semi and final matches. I'm not sure you can tell on TV how absolutely cleanly he was hitting the ball on both sides, how fast and hard his groundies were, and how well he moved. The crowd, who had been itching to root for Roddick, was pretty much stunned by how well Del Potro was playing, though he'd obviously made some new fans by the end. From what I heard, this guy's always had talent, but didn't know what to do with it - but if he can keep it together like he did in LA, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Posted by darthhelmethead(lurker in reform) 08/11/2008 at 08:31 PM

I thought that this was going to be the year of Roddick, but he hasn't been the same since Rome. And how promising the future looked as he stepped on the court with Stan Wawrinka, until he delivered one of the most painful looking serves I've ever seen. Darren Cahill might have been right at Cincinatti when he said that Roddick should take the fall off to retool his game.

As for Del Potro, I'd never been impressed with him until this weekend. When I saw him play Djokovic at the US Open I thought, what's so special about this kid? I've reassessed my opinion after watching him dismantle Mardy Fish. It looks that physically and technically Del Potro has added a bit of muscle to his game.

Posted by Al 08/11/2008 at 09:15 PM

Oh , noticed that you changed this article's heading. Wasn't it Juggernaut Of Followers....or something like that.

Posted by Rob 08/12/2008 at 12:28 AM

Given all Roddick's troubles in the last few months, should we really be surprised that a guy with Del Potro's game would throw him off course? This was hardly Rod at his best.

That takes nothing away from DP's accomplishments this summer. It's going to be really interesting to see what he does at the Open.

Posted by Juan José 08/12/2008 at 01:08 AM

I have very little to add to this, Steve. And I agree that some questions were answered, but not nearly all. However, this recent run of form on Delpo's part reminds me a lot of what Djokovic did in 06. After Wimbledon, he stayed in Europe and played Amersfoort (a tournament where he got an iPod as a trophy. This year they upgraded to a giant monstrosity), and made the final of Umag, where he retired after nearly passing out on court (he was playing an entertaining final against Stan the Man).

At any rate, that was important because that's when Djokovic started to learn how it is that you win. Matches he had done. Upsets, he had done a couple. But he hadn't been in a final, and he hadn't won a title. Winning is important, no matter where it happens.

What Delpo has won puts him rightly into the top 20. It's like a videogame: you win an ATP match, you pass to the next level. You create an upset, you pass to the next level. You win a little title, you pass to the next level. And so on, and so forth. It gets more and more difficult, and the end-of-level bosses get meaner and meaner.

Sometimes it feels like the game is endless, and sometimes it seems like the final level is clear. But at least it's good that you start passing levels early.

Posted by Unfazed 08/12/2008 at 07:08 AM

Please spell "faze" correctly--"phase" has a completely different meaning.

Posted by Master Ace 08/12/2008 at 08:13 AM

Juan butchered his share of volleys at the net but when he needed to execute the volleys in the tiebreak, he did in winning the breaker and the match easily. Juan may be the next of the wave of him, Gulbis, and Cilic. We may know the answer to that next wave question at this time next year.

Andy did good in making a final this week rediscovering that he can do more than serve mphs. Also, he got some much needed matches in recovering from his shoulder issues. Think he will be fine for the USO.

Posted by Ryan 08/12/2008 at 09:04 AM

Andy Roddick's backhand seems designed to give his opponent rhythm.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 08/12/2008 at 10:45 AM

Nice pece, Steve. Much food for thought there.

I am becoming more and more convinced, as the world's top players grow in stature and gain in speed, and the service boxes get smaller and smaller (figuratively of course, while the baseline and sidelines seem to be expanding once the ball is in play), that the drop-shot serve will become a tool just like any other.

I remember Chang in his 1989 Roland Garros title run, hitting an underhanded drop-shot serve to Ivan Lendl in the fourth round. I also remember about 10 years ago when Greg Rusedski clocked the fastest serve yet recorded by the radar gun -- 149 mpd -- and watched it come right back at him by Andre Agassi, I bleieve, losing the point in the process. Now Roddick sees his 140+ mph serves routinely returned and often with a big swing at the ball from his opponent.

The obvious evolutionary answer is to see the service box as any other part of the court, and to use all cominations of shots to carve up that space and make it difficult for your opponent to get a bead on your serve and smack a winning reply.

Look at badminton and table tennis, squash and racquetball, where serves are routinely hit short and softly, just beyond the net or nestled into a corner. It won't be too long before players realize that this tactic can be a highly effective way to keep a speedy or rangy opponent with a deadly return from gaining the upper hand at the start of the point.

Posted by SwissMaestro 08/12/2008 at 11:23 AM


What amazes me the most about this new generation of players is not only how much they are willing to learn but how quickly they absorb the lesson and apply it with amazing transition from one match to the very next. The best example to me? Djokovic. I have not seen anybody -Nadal included- that learns and applies -executes- the new knowledge that fast.

Posted by federerfan 08/12/2008 at 12:19 PM

slice : I have been thinking that would be the only way the fed can hope to hold his serves better on clay against rafa.

Posted by federerfan 08/12/2008 at 12:21 PM

slice : I have been thinking that would be the only way the fed can hope to hold his serves better on clay against rafa.
In my view, people dont have to do it often, just showing your opponent that you are going to throw it in if they backup too much behind the baseline, will act as a deterrent to those who stand 20 feet behind the baseline and help fed/others gain a few free points on the serve, which makes a big difference to serve games held and overall confidence.

Posted by In Praise of Athletic Beauty 08/12/2008 at 01:23 PM

Nice thought slice. I just think there's such a big stigma to a soft serve that it will never really catch on.

Personally, I use the variation in pace a lot in my matches. I usually begin a match with fast, flat first serves. My opponent usually responds to that by backing up on the first serve. Later on in the match I occasionally give them very soft spinny second serves even on the first serve. They are very effective as it totally throws off the returner's timing. This probably won't work on the pro tour where everyone's timing is so good.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 08/12/2008 at 01:36 PM

federerfan and IPOAB,

Thanks for your comments/input. I agree that (1) it's not likely to catch on easily, and (2) it would be a tactic, just like its sister, the drop shot, that would be used sparingly, except against the terminally slow or the numbskulled clay-court "specialist" who insists on stading 10 feet behind the baseline to return serve.

Come to think of it, it would work great against Andy Roddick!!! LOL

Posted by Sher 08/12/2008 at 02:00 PM

>But with these recent results, maybe it is the changing of the guard?

Wasn't this what they were saying two years ago, when Federer was turning, goodness, 25 and Djokovic & Murray were up and coming?

Posted by Phil 08/12/2008 at 05:10 PM

Didn't you say all this stuff-size, backhand power, versatility-about Safin a decade ago? Look what happened to him. And the game hasn't changed that much from his presence

Posted by Jeff in Rochester 08/12/2008 at 07:55 PM

How many times can we trash Roddick? He has a boring game and his macho act is really getting old. I agree with Cahill but Roddick will continue to hang with his usual entourage of brother and others shills fading into tennis history with his one major & one Davis Cup. He knew he would be outclassed in China and took the easy way out. What a sad state of American mens tennis.

Posted by gugafan 08/12/2008 at 09:21 PM

Roscoe Roddick

Posted by Dee 08/12/2008 at 09:57 PM

Yes, definitely another young man to watch.

Posted by simon 08/13/2008 at 12:38 AM

I watched Del Potro in the semis here in LA. Good composure, Fish had nothing on him... however, Fish pushed too hard and never looked comfortable.

I agree the dubious Roddick 'injury' was a bit obvious - even when ESPN went in the stands to interview Roddick's brother he had nothing to say about it... didn't even attempt to make up a fair story to convey the injurt his brother was dealing with pre-match...

I liked del potro's forehand - sure, it's a tad loopy but when he connects it's a beautiful stroke. Also, watching him return Roddick's serve was definitely impressive; this is an interesting development from the younger player(s) and I agree he is part of the new wave of up and comers in the game...

The only thing I will say about Roddick is the fact that it was his first day match in the tournament - previous matches were all during the day... but even so the courts here in LA are quite slow for hard courts...

thanks for the article, a great read!

Posted by Paige 08/13/2008 at 01:20 AM

Portro won in Washington today, good for him, he's really talented!

Posted by Rick 08/13/2008 at 02:06 PM

Speaking of kids... I was at the qualies of Legg Mason last Sunday and watched Donald Young and Junior Ore (a local 15 yr old - yep, 15!) play a practice set. With lots of people gathered to see DY the talk soon got round to who is this kid?
Did some research on him and turns out Ore and his long time friend, another 15 yr old, played a match before Sampras/Fed exhibition in NY and they got a WC into the doubles here (they lost 1 and 1).

Who knows what the future holds for these guys but they sure know how to hit the ball. Kids indeed.

Posted by luxsword ex lulu 08/13/2008 at 05:37 PM

Thanks for this article about Del Potro. Been interested in him for a while. One to follow. :)

Posted by love40 08/13/2008 at 11:10 PM

Del Potro is, in my opinion, too tall. His game lacks elegance, beauty, or even drama. At least Roddick is an athlete. If Andy were 6'5" he'd probably serve at 160 mph. Mr. Roddick needs to cut out the whining("can they stop waving those fans?") and probably run some more hills. Life for him might be a bit too cozy with steak for dinner and Brooklyn for desert every night. If I were his trainer, I'd ask him to stop eating meat, put him on meditation and yoga and turn Mr. "also-ran" into a Jedi. I think the man could use a Sampras-like transition game . If only I had one! I'm going to go running now....

Posted by LeAnna 08/14/2008 at 01:38 PM

Juan's been having a great year, I watched his match yesterday. However he's a jerk so I can't cheer him on.

Posted by Carrie 08/14/2008 at 02:51 PM

LeAnna- why do you say he is a jerk?

Posted by linda 08/15/2008 at 10:18 AM


why do you say he is a jerk? i don´t think so...he seems to be a nice person, quiet, relax, and the times i saw him speaking he seems to be a good person.

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