One of 2016's best storylines was the resurgence of Juan Martin del Potro, a U.S. Open winner who sank below No. 1000 during his long absence from the tour to deal with wrist injuries. But his ascent slowed this year, as the 28-year-old Argentine, whose No. 34 ranking still grossly undersells his talent, kept getting dealt brutal draws—Novak Djokovic in the second round, Roger Federer in the third round, and the like. (If you’d like to see his bad luck quantified, Tennis Abstract did some nice modeling to back up the eye test.) This week delivered some relief, finally: Del Potro notched breakout wins at the Italian Open—first over No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov in the opening round, and, today, in the third round, No. 9 Kei Nishikori, winning 7-6 (4), 6-3.
Injury apparently took nothing off the large Argentinian’s forehand—it still makes a shotgun pop and goes faster than your eye can track—but del Potro’s backhand was basically unrecognizable upon return to the tour. Suddenly, the guy was playing tennis with one hand. He no longer hit his formidable two-handed backhand drive, which was probably less out of tactical choice than out of medical necessity; as Delpo’s surgeon explained, it was this topspin backhand motion that aggravated his wrists in the first place. In its stead del Potro relied almost exclusively on a one-handed slice—a serviceable fill-in, but not a shot capable of ending points for him. Over the last year, del Potro has had several matches where you could tally on your fingers the number of two-handed drives del Potro hit. Its appearance was nearly cause for celebration.
But this week, and especially today, it’s slowly creeping back into his game. The two-hander is hardly pretty—mechanically hesitant, fairly flat and slow—but it gets the job done when a point needs closing out. Imagine if he’d had to settle for his floaty slice here, instead of putting the ball away:
That he’s growing confident enough to hit this down the line—where the net is higher and the court is shorter than on the cross-court shot he overwhelmingly favors—bodes well for his development. While this backhand is a simulacrum of the weapon it used to be, he needs to keep making technical adjustments to rediscover some pace and spin, because as big as his forehand is, his power baseline game looks a lot more vulnerable with a liability on one wing.
Meanwhile, using his hand that still works well, del Potro served the hell out of the ball. He won 83 percent of first serves against Nishikori, an extremely resourceful returner ranked sixth on tour in percentage of return games won over the last year. During the second set, Tennis Channel put up a graphic that showed just how dominant del Potro was when serving into the deuce side of the court:
Nishikori’s sluggish year continues, putting him on the cusp of falling out of the top 10. But for del Potro, this marks his first win of the season over someone in that elite tier, and his first win over a top-10 player on clay since 2012. He’ll face another major test in the next round: Novak Djokovic, for the third time this season.