The impression left by the first ATP World Tour Finals (WTF) singles semi-final is that if tennis is a physical sport (and we know it is), it is even more of a mental one. It is something I have always known, of course, but somehow, it seemed even more so during the match opposing Novak Djokovic to Juan Martín Del Potro.
We often see momentum switches in tennis matches, especially when they are tight, and sometimes, a missed shot or opportunity can be quite the match changer. For instance, a player who wastes several break opportunities in a game may end up being broken in the next. A bad call can disrupt a player’s focus for several points, and even entire games. The list is long.
The first WTF semi-final didn’t seem any different, as it started very evenly, the Argentine saving several break points at his first service game, but all was tight and tied until the seventh game. Then, at Deuce, Novak Djokovic had a missed smash of hilarious proportions, as the ball bounced on his side of the net and stayed in his half, thus giving a break point to Del Potro. The Argentine was unable to capitalise on this (literally) given opportunity and the World n° 1 held, but the deed was done.
From then on, Del Potro was nearly untouchable, whereas Djokovic seemed completely down, perturbed, and elsewhere. He became erratic, his footwork was off, and it seemed as though he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, which led to a break at his next service game and a show of the Argentine’s fire power, as he went from potent serves to flaming forehands to take the first set, 6-4.
Novak Djokovic seemed to still be in a bit of a daze at the start of the second set, barely hanging on in the first game to hold, and being broken at his next service game after a good hold from Del Potro, who continued to fire missiles from all angles in full confidence and appeared to be sailing to a second consecutive huge win, after his triumph over Roger Federer on Saturday.
However, then came the second match changing moment, as the Serbian hung on and took advantage of every tiny opportunity given by Del Potro to break straight back, waking up the champion he is and never looking back. He broke the Argentine in the eighth game, served out the set and then flew to a 4-6 6-3 6-2 win in front of an erratic Juan Martín Del Potro, who had lost all belief and confidence.
There are some important aspects to ponder from this match, the first one being that great champions like Novak Djokovic always find a way to come back, somehow, even when the situation seems desperate.
The second one, for me, is that although Juan Martín Del Potro progressed immensely since the beginning of the season, he is not yet at the level of the Fantastic Four, and seems to lack self-belief when the situation gets tense against one of those giants, and this even though he won his last two matches against Roger Federer.
Furthermore, the lack of variety in Del Potro’s game may have been his downfall as much as his lack of confidence once Djokovic had gotten the match back on level terms. At present, he seems to only hit the ball harder when having his back to the wall, precipitating his powerful strokes rather than varying the play as we know he can do. Also, especially during key moments, his game is pretty predictable, as the opponent can easily read, for instance, that he will almost always hit his backhand cross-court rather than surprising him with one down the line.
These might perhaps be little details he could perfect during the off season.
However, this doesn’t take away the gigantic season Del Potro has had, and how much closer to his 2009 level he has come. This bodes well for the coming season.
As for Djokovic, he reaches the WTF final for the first time since 2008, which he won, and awaits one of two well-known rivals: Roger Federer or Andy Murray.