When Juan Martin del Potro won the US Open in 2009, there seemed reason to believe that the hegemony in men’s tennis would give way. It, of course, did not pan out that way. Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin and del Potro remain the only players outside the Big Four to have won a Major, since 2004. But it is easy to see why fans would think del Potro was that promised man. He was young — the Argentine was 21 then. He was big, and so was his game — six feet six inches of his hulking frame powered down huge serves and cranked out booming ground strokes. Besides, he won the right way — he still remains the only player to have beaten both Nadal and Federer in a Major.
Another ‘giant’, 6 ft 4 in Robin Soderling came close, twice. He beat Nadal in the 2009 French Open, but fell to Federer in the final. The next year in Paris, it was the other way around.
Admittedly, it is a simplification, this appraisal of del Potro as a new age brute, but nevertheless, it stands that, to be heard over the technical discussion (Federer’s peerless single-handed backhand spawning Nadal’s whiplashed forehand top-spinner which in turn was countered by Djokovic’s rally-ending backhand down-the-line) at the top, he had to scream. But the potential contenders, in Safin, del Potro, Soderling and Tomas Berdych (who beat Federer and Djokovic in Wimbledon 2010, but couldn’t put it past Nadal in the final) have all only briefly prospered. A big game entails greater risk of injury. Ignoring the safe, percentage shots brings with it a greater level of inconsistency. Over time, doubt creeps in.
The next to step up to the plate, though, was a bit different. Stanislas Wawrinka is 28. At six feet, he is not particularly big. He hasn’t won a single ATP 1000 or 500 tournament, and had lost 14 matches in a row to Djokovic, before Tuesday’s win. Even in victory, he is circumspect. “I have to play my best tennis. I have to hope that Novak is not in his best form or Rafa is not in his best form or Roger is not in his best form,” he had said this week. In his corner, he counts something that sportsmen and journalists often use as a filler to describe something elusive, formless and often suspected to be imaginary and useless — belief. “In the past year I had a big jump with that. I trust myself when I go on court. I know that I can beat those players,” he said, after the second of two close five-set losses to Djokovic in the hardcourt Slams last year. Then, he turned it around.
When the unlikely outsider finally came, it was with a philosophy that was rooted in the acceptance of defeat and his own lack of distinction; and a single-handed backhand.
Raakesh is a principal correspondent, based in New Delhi.