Modern Tennis Man is Just About Back. Can Federer, Nadal, Djokovic Hold up?

Juan Martin del Potro, Modern Tennis Man

Modern Tennis Man is tall AND nimble. He can run fast AND bend low. He can crush a flat forehand AND (thanks to modern strings) keep it on the court.

Forever, tennis has been either/or. They’re AND now for Modern Tennis Man.

He arrived in 2009, really, and started revolutionizing the game. Then, he blew out his wrist and went away for a year. Now, Juan Martin del Potro is not fully back, but he did crush No. 4 Robin Soderling, who is having a great year, 6-3, 6-2 Sunday in Miami.

“I’m improving faster than what I’m thinking, or then what I expected,’’ del Potro said the other day. “I think I have a difference between me and Rafa (Nadal) or top 10 players at this moment, but is getting closer.

“Maybe in the second part of the year, I will be ready for fight against them.’’

This is much bigger than one guy getting his game back. To me, del Potro was the next step in tennis evolution. His injury interrupted that.

So Sunday was a big moment in tennis. It was the day that Modern Tennis Man (MTM) announced he would be back soon.

Remember, del Potro made Nadal look like a rag doll in the 2009 US Open. MTM made Nadal look to alter his game.

Then, after a nervous start in the Open final, del Potro crushed Roger Federer, too. MTM made Federer’s game look obsolete.

And if the tennis world got the message Sunday, then del Potro surely got it about himself, too.

The talk of tennis now is Novak Djokovic, and whether Federer and Nadal are chasing him instead of the other way around. I think Federer is chasing Djokovic now, but Djokovic is still chasing Nadal.

But here is a prediction: By the U.S. Open, del Potro will be better than Djokovic.

It’s always exciting when something new comes into the game doing something different. Years ago, when Tiger Woods won his first Masters, the rest of the golf world started panicking. Tom Watson, who was way past his time but  still on the leaderboard that day, seemed thrilled about Woods. So I asked him about it.

He said that in sports, the next great thing comes along and then everyone else starts trying to catch him. They see new possibilities. And that’s how a game itself raises its level.

It’s a little embarrassing for a grown man, especially one who has been to a ton of sporting events, to sound like a little kid. But honestly, I was there for del Potro’s win over Federer, and the thrill of watching what he was doing sent my mind buzzing. He was belting those forehands down the line, making maybe the greatest player of all time look silly. You’re just thinking “Oh My God!”

I had the same feeling watching Nadal at the Beijing Olympics. He was MTM about three years ago. Maybe he still is. These generations go by so quickly.

Federer is not going to be able to beat Modern Tennis Man using his old-fashioned racquet. It’s too flexible for a guy with a one-handed backhand to stand up to someone tall guy crushing forehands down the line.

I’m having a hard time telling what racquet del Potro is using for sure. Many players have their racquets painted to look like other racquets, believe it or not.

Delpo might be using the Federer racquet, or something close. But it matches up with his game far better than with Federer’s. So Federer has been trying to swing out on his backhands and crowd the baseline to fight back the modern game.

It has helped, but it hasn’t been enough to beat Djokovic, and it’s not going to hold off del Potro, either.

Nadal’s knees were still sore in that U.S. Open, when Delpo beat him. But he knew afterward that his game had to change. There was no way it was going to hold up to Modern tennis man.

His heavy topspin wasn’t bouncing up and into the weak spot of Federer’s one-handed backhand anymore, but instead into the perfect strike zone of a 6-foot-6 guy’s two-hander. So Nadal worked on flattening out his backhand, and driving it, among other things.

It appeared to be working when he beat Soderling in the French Open final and then Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon final. They are tall with modern games, too.

But those two aren’t athletic like del Potro.

Someone asked Soderling the other day about how much his height helps. In the old days, 6-foot, 6-1 seemed ideal for tennis. With a few exceptions, taller was too tall.

“The game has improved a lot in just only 10 years,’’ he said. “The service is very important in today’s tennis and, of course, it’s easier to have a good serve if you’re taller.

“There’s still also the smaller guys who’s doing really well. But if you’re not that tall, I think it’s really important that you move really well.’’

Like David Ferrer. Ferrer isn’t tall, but moves great. If here were tall, would he be winning majors?
“Then it (would be) tough to move the way he is,’’ Soderling said.

See? Soderling is still thinking Either/Or, not AND. Tall guys move just fine in the NBA. Soderling doesn’t. Berdych doesn’t.

Del Potro does.

So give him a few more months to regain his feel and confidence. We’ll see whether Nadal’s changes were enough. We’ll see if Federer is pushed backward by MTM. We’ll see if Djokovic, who isn’t playing MTM-style, can fight it off.

In some ways, I think the game is chasing del Potro. But he wasn’t dominant long enough to know for sure.

Now, we’re going to get to find out.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

3 responses to “Modern Tennis Man is Just About Back. Can Federer, Nadal, Djokovic Hold up?

  • Steve

    His serve still sucks for a guy of his height though. Massive room for improvement there, which is a scary thought.

    He moves well but not well enough to ever win Wimbledon I don’t think.

  • Kyle Hoegh

    No question in my mind I agree that Del Potro has the MTM game. We still haven’t found out if he has the mental toughness to sustain greatness (a la Nadal and Federer). There have been brief times where other players have made Fed or Nadal’s games look obsolete but nobody has ever sustained it. Maybe it wasn’t at the level Delpo looked at the US Open, but Djoker did beat Fed in straight sets in the Semis of the Australian Open, and Andy Murray (hard to believe with his current results) has made Nadal look inferior on hard courts.

    Also, it is semantics, but wasn’t it more Nadal’s torn abdomen from overcompensating for his knees, that hurt his power and ground stroke depth vs Delpo US Open match?

    Either way, in my opinion, even with Delpo’s current serve and quickness he should be a favorite to win any of the major’s including Wimby or RG if he can sustain the required focus, hold of injury, and prove he isn’t susceptible to mental fatigue.

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