By defeating John Isner in straight sets, Juan Martin del Potro not only reached his first French Open quarterfinal since 2012, but he also showed that he is playing some of his best tennis. He effectively neutralized the American’s big serves and used his own weapons to dominate baseline rallies, turning what could have been a war of attrition into a relatively swift, tiebreak free, straight sets del Potro win.
Since his latest return from major injury, del Potro has performed inconsistently at Slams. His withdrawal from the Rome Masters shortly before the start of the French Open cast further doubt on whether he would back up his strong spring on the American hard courts with a deep run on the European clay.
So far, aside from a wobble against Nicolas Mahut in the first set of the first round, del Potro has looked dangerous. Del Potro enters his quarterfinal against Marin Cilic with an 8-2 lead in the pair’s head-to-head. He will gain confidence from the fact that he has not lost to Cilic since 2011 and has never lost to the big-serving Croat on clay. Assuming a del Potro win against Cilic, and an absence of new injuries, he will likely face defending champion Rafael Nadal in the semifinals–a rematch of their US Open encounter. Unless he is physically hampered, del Potro is a real threat to Nadal.
The Nadal Challenge
The US Open was the site of del Potro’s greatest success and has been his most consistent Slam–three quarterfinals and a semifinal in addition to his win in 2009–however, del Potro was depleted by the time he came up against Nadal in last year’s semifinal and, though he managed to win the first set, faded quickly over the course of the next three. It is foolish to bet against Nadal on clay, and especially so on the clay of Roland Garros, but del Potro’s game is the kind that, when firing, can beat any player. It is also the game that has proven the most consistently successful against Nadal on clay. Robin Soderling, who famously upset Nadal at the French open in 2009, and Dominic Thiem who beat Nadal last year in the quarterfinals of Rome and this year in the quarterfinals of Madrid, used their power hitting to subdue Nadal. Being a power player who can redline his game is one of the few proven methods for beating Nadal on clay.
When asked about the challenge of facing Nadal in the press conference after his third round victory over Albert Ramos-Vinolas, del Potro stated, “Rafael is obviously the favorite to win. He’s playing unbelievable tennis…Nobody [can] find a way to win a set [against] him. I am finding a way to do my own way and I’m calm with that.” If del Potro plays his game and imposes himself with solid serving and hard-hitting off both wings, he will have a chance.
A Better Chance than Most
Del Potro has done well to make it this far at the French Open. The clay suits his game as it gives him time to line up his huge forehand. If he makes his way past Cilic (likely) and finds a way to beat Nadal (much less likely) he would enter the final, likely facing Dominic Thiem against whom he has a 4-0 head to head advantage. Thiem’s a dangerous player on clay and he has been playing great tennis but del Potro can unsettle and defeat anyone.
Of the players left in the draw, del Potro has the best chance, along with Dominic Thiem, of challenging Nadal. Del Potro’s path forward is not easy, but if he plays his best tennis, he could defeat Nadal and even win the title. The fact that he has a chance at all is a testament to his current level. Even if he loses to Cilic in his quarterfinal match, a strong showing at the French Open will cement del Potro’s return to the top of men’s tennis, solidify his ranking, and provide extra confidence before the grass court season.