Juan Martin Del Potro’s appearance in Sydney is his first on the ATP World Tour since retiring from an opening round match last February with a recurring left wrist injury. The Argentine underwent surgery in March and is finally in good enough condition to return to the sport. This comes after reports circulated last year claiming Del Potro could have returned as early as the US Open.
Now that he’s back, what are his chances against the game’s elite? The one-time Grand Slam champion has suffered a stunted career with two major injury lay-offs, both coming months after major results: the first after winning the 2009 US Open, and the second after pushing World No. 1 Novak Djokovic to the brink in the 2013 Wimbledon semifinals.
The first thing to take into consideration when forecasting the former No. 4’s chances is the simple fact that he has been dealing with left wrist pain on and off since 2012. It’s clear that this is one area of his body that is highly sensitive and must be approached with utmost caution. Just because Del Potro is finally back on the court doesn’t mean he’s injury-free. To this point, he admitted after his upset win over top seed Fabio Fognini that he’s still dealing with some pain, which is why he called a trainer during the first set of their match Wednesday.
The obvious issue with having a left wrist injury is the effect it has on Del Potro’s two-handed backhand. From a technical standpoint, Del Potro puts the racket face under and behind the back of the ball by lowering his shoulders, forearms and wrists. The left wrist is also used when creating sharp cross-court angles off that wing. To a much lesser extent, Del Potro will also have to use that wrist to do ostensibly harmless things, like simply bouncing and tossing the ball while serving. Full disclosure: I’m no doctor; whether or not these actions will have any impact on his wrist is hard to say. But it’s certainly something worth discussing.
Rest assured, Del Potro won’t be taking 20 bounces before serving a la Novak Djokovic back in the day.
Looking on the bright side, Del Potro’s backhand is probably the least important shot in his arsenal, falling well behind his serve and miles behind his forehand. He typically hits neutral balls off that otherwise precarious wing, and looks to remain solid cross-court while waiting to take more opportunities off the forehand.
Speaking of the Del Potro forehand, it goes without saying that it is one of the best in the game; it may go down as one of the greatest the game has ever seen. He can crush it from any position on the court, stationary or on the move. His entire game is predicated off dictating rallies with his forehand. From that perspective, things could really be a lot worse for him, as they were in 2010 when he suffered a right wrist injury. Del Potro could probably hold his own against much of the tour with his normal forehand and a slice backhand, an illustration of just how good his forehand is.
In spite of that, it still seems illogical to expect a lot from Del Potro at the Australian Open. Depending on who he plays and how his draw pans out, he could possibly make a push towards the second week. But as an unseeded player, he could easily draw a Djokovic or a Roger Federer in the first round, which would all but guarantee an early exit. Regardless of who he plays and when he plays them, Del Potro is not on a path to winning his first major since 2009 if he isn’t 100 percent, physically. The task of winning a slam is hard enough for anyone in good health.
If Del Potro is able to maintain a clean bill of health and return to the level we saw him achieve in 2013, he can beat anybody on the planet – no question. That’s obviously a big if and, as someone who seems to possess a realistic view of himself and his progress, he won’t be expecting to dominate his opponents right away, knowing that hardships now may help forge the road for successes later in the season.
How far do you think Del Po can go? Sound off in the comments!