Tennis - ATP World Tour
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Despite missing the majority of the 2019 season with a right knee injury, Juan Martin del Potro shared his optimism on the level of his game ahead of his first-round match at Roland Garros.
The World No. 9, who owns a 4-3 record on the ATP Tour this season, has played just three events this year. But, in his most recent outing at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, Del Potro rediscovered his best form in an epic quarter-final clash against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The Serbian was forced to save two match points in a second-set tie-break, before claiming a 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 victory against Del Potro.
"I also surprised myself after the Djokovic match in Rome," said Del Potro. "I played great tennis for almost three hours, very high intensity, with the number one of the world, which is a very good thing looking towards the future."
"But I know how my present [level] is at the moment. I know how far [away] my best level is. I have high expectations in the future, but not now because I want to be calm. I want to be safe, as well. This is part of my rehabilitation to get better and get to 100 per cent soon... I will try to play as best as I can, but I am going slowly."
One particular aspect of the former World No. 3's game appears to be returning to full strength, which could spell danger for the rest of the ATP Tour. Del Potro believes that his old backhand is close to full potency, which may help elevate the Tower of Tandil's game to new heights in the near future.
"I am getting back to my old backhand and that helps me for my whole game," said Del Potro. "I played a lot of backhands down the line [in Rome], making a lot of winners and it is a very good thing for my game. Now I can mix it up with my slices [and] different shots that I improved a few years ago. If my wrist still helps me, I will be playing harder backhands, as well as my forehands, and I will have a complete game for this year."
One potential match which catches the eye in Del Potro's section of the draw in Paris is a possible third-round encounter against #NextGenATP Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. The 18-year-old enters the clay-court Grand Slam championship in impressive form, after reaching his second ATP Tour final on the surface this year at the Open Parc Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Lyon (l. to Paire).
But Del Potro is well aware of the challenges he will face to advance to the third round. The two-time Roland Garros semi-finalist will meet Banque Eric Sturdza Geneva Open finalist Nicolas Jarry in his first match. Jarry did not drop a set in Geneva en route to his second ATP Tour final, where he plays World No. 5 Alexander Zverev.
"I know [Felix's] potential. He has a big future but also he is playing great at the moment," said Del Potro. "He plays a strong game. He has all the shots on court and he is getting better and better every tournament. It will be fun to watch him because I love his game, but we both have to win a couple of matches before. Looking to myself, I have a very tough first round with Jarry and I am just thinking about him and that is it."
Del Potro enters Paris with the full backing of his doctor and is looking forward to testing himself in the latest stage of his recovery in Paris. With little pressure and expectations on the red dirt, Del Potro believes his top level is not far away as he eyes future success at the Grand Slam level.
"The doctor gave me big confidence to play this tournament. I have been practising hard, getting ready to play another Grand Slam at this time of my rehab," said Del Potro. "It would be great if I finish this tournament healthy, playing good tennis, good level, because I am looking forward to being 100 per cent in the grass season and also in the summer of the United States. [Those] will be my biggest goals for this year."
But, as he did in Rome, could Del Potro be ready to once again surprise himself on the red dirt? Only four men have defeated the Argentine since 2009 at the second Grand Slam championship of the year; Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. It could take a similar level to stop him again this year.
Vincent Balme didn't know who was practising inside Court Suzanne Lenglen, but the 39-year-old from Belgium saw droves of people running to Roland Garros' second biggest show court, and thought: We have to get there.
The Brussels resident was glad he did. Balme, along with his wife and two of their children, nestled into four seats together behind the baseline, about halfway up, to watch 11-time champion Rafael Nadal prepare for another historic run in Paris.
The Spaniard and Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay practised for nearly two hours in front of a nearly-full stadium as thousands of parents, along with their children, busied the grounds during Kids' Day at Roland Garros, where main draw play begins on Sunday. It was a stark change for Nadal, who practised in front of only credentialed spectators on Friday inside Court Philippe Chatrier.
But the Spaniard didn't mind the constant murmur from fans' chatter and surely appreciated the claps and cheers, "Allez!", after lengthy rallies and pleasing points. Balme and the thousands of fans enjoyed the session. “It's a nice surprise, and to see it real, it's much different than on TV,” Balme said.
He was most impressed by Nadal's precision and his consistency, how he hits every ball well. “He places the ball where he wants... The racquet is a third arm,” Balme said.
He has followed the sport for the past 30 years but no longer plays regularly – a family of five and his job as a financial controller in the hotel industry keeps him plenty busy during the week.
But his two oldest children, 11-year-old Clemence and eight-year-old Thomas, both have been playing the sport since last year and were sandwiched in between Balme and his wife, Marjorie, 35.
“It's a good opportunity for them to discover what real tennis is,” Balme said of Clemence and Thomas. “It's a good atmosphere also, and Roland Garros is really famous all around the world, so it's really nice.”
Clemence also watched in awe. “It's quite impressive, seeing it in person and not on the TV. I can't believe it,” she said, through her father's translation.
The 11-year-old, who plays with low-compression orange balls, was most impressed by Nadal's power. “She's not playing that hard,” her father said.
Seeing Rafa the day before the season's second Grand Slam begins was also a happy accident for Martina Lombard and her 10-year-old boy, Emil. The Parisian boy was so eager to watch tennis at Roland Garros, he stopped at the first court he saw and gawked.
“No, no, come on!” his mother told him. “There will not be many places.”
She wasn't far off, as more and more fans filled the stadium during Nadal's two-hour practice. Lombard, 43, said she had met Nadal years earlier on a train ride, when the Spaniard smiled and posed for a photo with her group. On Saturday, Nadal's focus caught her eye. “I think he's very concentrated,” she said.
What impressed Emil the most might be the key to whether Nadal wins his 12th Roland Garros title this fortnight. It wasn't Nadal's hustle or his intensity that the 10-year-old liked the most, but rather, Nadal's forehand.
Former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero won the Roland Garros title 16 years ago. Two years later, another Spaniard, 18-year-old Rafael Nadal, triumphed on the Parisian terre battue. Little did Ferrero know that Nadal would emerge victorious at the clay-court Grand Slam 11 times. And the World No. 2 could add to that tally in the coming fortnight.
“Rafa, if he’s 100 per cent physically, I think he’s going to win it again,” Ferrero told ATPTour.com.
But Ferrero, who consistently keeps up with the ATP Tour throughout the year, especially at ATP Masters 1000 tournaments and Grand Slams, knows that it won’t be easy for his countryman. Nadal needed until the Internazionali BNL d’Italia to win his first title of the season, the Spaniard’s longest title drought to start a year since 2004, when he captured his maiden tour-level trophy. Even with Nadal now near his best, there are plenty of challengers ready to make their own mark in Paris.
“Thiem I also think is one of the favourites. He played the final last year. I think he [has] got the experience he needs to create an opportunity to win a Grand Slam on clay after beating Rafa more than one time,” said Ferrero of Dominic Thiem, who after beating Nadal in Barcelona has defeated the legendary lefty on clay in three consecutive seasons. “Obviously Novak is going to be there. Other guys, it’s tough to say. Roger, on clay, best-of-five sets, I’m not going to put him as one of the favourites this time.”
Federer is competing at Roland Garros for the first time since 2015. Before playing in Madrid and Rome, the 37-year-old had not entered a clay-court event since 2016. He made the quarter-finals at each of those two Masters 1000 tournaments.
On the other hand, Djokovic is the World No. 1, and he gained momentum heading into Paris by lifting the trophy at the Mutua Madrid Open. And in Rome, the Serbian battled through two grueling three-setters, in the quarter-finals against Juan Martin del Potro and the semi-finals against Diego Schwartzman, to reach the final against Nadal.
Although Djokovic battled hard, pushing the championship match to a third set, Nadal ultimately lifted his ninth trophy at the Foro Italico.
“It was a bit weird, the match, because the first set and the third set were not the battles that you expect from these kind of matches in finals or if you see some of the matches that Novak and Rafa have played in the past,” Ferrero said. “It was very weird to see 6-0 and then the third 6-1. Rafa, I think he was playing very aggressive, maybe a bit more than the other tournaments. Of course Rafa was a little bit hurt to lose in the tournaments that maybe he was expected to win like Barcelona, Monte-Carlo or Madrid.
“He was wanting to win the tournament very badly and you could see from the beginning in Rome and definitely in the final, he went for it from the first point. Maybe the concentration of Novak, it was not the same of Rafa’s [throughout the week].”
Now, plenty of history could be made at Roland Garros. Nadal could claim a record 12th Coupe des Mousquetaires, Djokovic could win his fourth consecutive major, doing so for the second time in his career, and Federer can lift his 21st Grand Slam trophy.
“When I was playing, it was strange to think someone is going to achieve these kind of numbers. But now you see Roger or Novak or Rafa and seeing them, it’s like normal numbers for them because they’re fighting every Grand Slam to win,” Ferrero said. “After being No. 1 and achieving a very good career, it’s almost impossible to think someone could achieve these kind of numbers.”
Ferrero also believes that the likes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer build their level so as to peak at Grand Slams and Masters 1000 events.
“I think now they play more for the numbers, for the records,” Ferrero said. “It’s the history of numbers and who’s going to win more Grand Slams and who’s going to win more Masters 1000s. They have to have some big motivation in there and those numbers could be one of those.”