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TennisOne – Western & Southern Open

Del Potro: The Next Big Thing

Michael McDowell

Sunday in Cincinnati, fans watched the quick and not so painless dismantling of Italian Andreas Seppi who retired with a foot injury down 1-4. No doubt many of these fans were wondering if Seppi’s tormentor, Juan Martin del Potro, is all the way back from his serious wrist injury; and if he is ready to regain the form that took him to the US Open title over Roger Federer in 2009.

Questions abound:

  • Will he for a second time be able to break the choke hold the Big Three have had on grand slam titles since Marat Safin won the Australian in 2005?
  • Is he capable of stopping the steamroller that Novak Djokovic has become in 2011?

  • Or, finally, as we were asking before his injury: Can del Potro stay healthy and stake his claim to the number one spot in tennis as have Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic before him?

Regardless of how these questions are ultimately answered, it is clear that Juan Martin has the skill set to beat anybody as well as the potential to soon regain his place among the top four players in the sport.

So what can we (as players and coaches) learn from del Potro to improve our play or to pass along to our students? Some of my answers are pretty obvious, but some may surprise you. Let’s review video from Del Potro's very short match here at the Western & Southern Open to illustrate what juniors and recreational players should strive to learn from this South American star.

Classic Groundstrokes

Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro is a big man with a big game. Standing 6’6”, Del Potro can crush flat, penetrating groundies off either wing; and he sports a serve that regularly tops 130 mph.

Now, even if we aren’t able to rip 100 mph forehands; or launch rocket-like serves, most players can improve the power on their strokes.

Recently, Jim McLennan added an excellent piece (Juan Martin del Potro and Stepping In) to the TennisOne library. In this article, Jim discusses how del Potro generates power by stepping in on his forehands and backhands. He illustrates how Juan Martin loads his weight on the ball side foot and transfers his weight in a very traditional manner to create power on both sides. Following Tom Stow, he speaks of this as “getting your weight against the ball.”

Take a look at the "Classic Forehand" examples from today’s match. Notice how aggressively del Potro strides forward to execute such strokes. Likewise pay careful attention to how he maintains incredible balance while doing so.

Open Stance Forehands

As you will see from the next two forehands, Juan Martin also hits from an open stance; and, in these situations, there are somewhat different mechanics. These forehands take on more of what we’ve come to know as a Modern vs. a Classical or traditional look. However, notice that there is still loading on the ball side foot (albeit the outside foot in stance instead of the back foot), see how the hips and the shoulders still coil in preparation for the stroke, and finally see if you agree with me that del Potro’s weight is definitely still “against the ball” as Jim discusses in his video. I would argue that these key positions and fundamental movements are every bit as critical to the modern approach as they were to the traditional game.

Now on these strokes, del Potro does something that all too often recreational players neglect when hitting open stance; that is, he keeps a wide base and holds his upper body with great posture over this base to maintain excellent dynamic balance. So once again I agree with Jim in saying that the average club player should probably not attempt to hit with these modern techniques unless they understand and master appropriate techniques for maintaining balance. Otherwise, it is unlikely that the player will achieve either an increase in power or an acceptable level of consistency. So if you want to use these new techniques for creating greater racquet head speed, it is critical that you also work to develop the appropriate agility to move and execute the stroke with the requisite degree of balance.

The Service Return

Next, let’s take a quick look at the return of serve. Here, Juan Martin uses an open stance with a very compact swing pattern. Sometimes del Potro does step in on the return – hitting a more traditional shot; however, more frequently, he uses this open stance on balls near him; and footwork similar to a running forehand or backhand on balls that require a quick crossover step to reach. This simplified footwork is matched by an equally simplified swing pattern.

Open Stance Return of Serve

Notice the extremely short backswing on these returns – which allows del Potro to meet the ball out front with his weight moving forward into the ball by utilizing a coordinated movement of the legs, hips, and racquet. This technique allows more consistently solid contact, which allows the player to get into the point more frequently than would an overly aggressive full swing as you might use to rally from the baseline.

In the final two videos, let’s look at complete points from the Seppi match. Focus on two points:

  • Due in large part to technological advances in racquets and strings, at all levels balls are being struck with every greater pace and spin. This means, to play your best tennis, you should place a premium on acceleration and efficient footwork to position for your strokes. In these points, see how skillfully del Potro moves for a big man.
  • Also, observe the variety in his game. It isn’t just serve and big forehand quick strike tennis. We see him attacking and defending, hitting topspin and backspin, using open and closed stances, as well as shifting seamlessly from defense to offense.

To wrap things up, it seems that elements of the both the modern and traditional games are to be found in Juan Martin del Potro’s style. However, probably the most important message to be learned is that certain sound fundamentals are essential regardless of which approach you choose.

Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about Michael McDowell's article by emailing us here at TennisOne.

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