Saturday, November 28, 2009

Del Potro V Soderling: They Call It "Clutch".

Greetings tennis obsessed,

In tennis, every match consists of "stories within stories".   Sometimes those stories morph into a colossal work.  Other times there is no rhyme or reason to them.  Eventually, each story gives way to a similar but unrelated version of itself.  Usually, in colossal matches where the stakes are improbably high, the winner is the player who can build his series of "stories within stories" into a larger more forceful work - not built just of technique, but also of desire, improvisation, and belief.

Tennis is like reality TV in the sense that it has no script.  A match is often a contest of how each player can react to the countless number of spontaneous situations that will eventually arise out of the chaos that is being played, freeform, out on the court.

One such "story within a story" took place in the 8th game of the 2nd set today at the O2 Arena in London.  It was one of those unexpected moments that can, in the span of a blink of an eye, explode into a match-altering event that looms forever large to those who participated in the match and the also the lucky spectators who were able to witness the moment blossom into a chess-like execution of a foolproof strategy.

Here's how it happened:  While leading in games 4-3, but trailing against the nearly invincible Soderling serve  (30-40), Del Potro plopped an impromptu drop shot just over the net.  It sent Soderling running in desperation to the forecourt. Out of his comfort zone, Soderling was in no-mans land without a paddle.  He was forced to: a) hit a very difficult shot at a critical juncture of the match while on a dead sprint, then b) try to chase down a lung-collapsing lob that was cleverly placed just over his outsretched racquet, a few feet inside the baseline.

Soderling failed to provide a solution to that lob.  Even more importantly, he was gassed after the two sprints - gassed in a way that he had not experienced all match long - and as a result he missed both ensuing first serves.  This led to Del Potro scoring the break, and eventually, the set.

It was a quick and decisive sneak attack from a player who is not only a monster from the baseline but a server extraordinaire.  It was a point that turned into a clinic.  The logical progression for a tennis player that not only exerts himself over his opponents, but also thinks his way cleverly around them.

These are the subtle ebbs and flows in momentum that can have everything to say about who wins or loses a match in which both players have equal amounts of prowess.

The drop shot-lob combo was such a clever play at that moment.  And the fact that Del Potro had the presence to use it and to execute it properly proves that he is mature beyond his years.

There it was.  The perfect strategic play at the perfect time of the match where it nets the greatest effect.   Whether it was planned or culled out of thin air makes no difference - the fact that Del Potro was able to harness the magic of the moment with such aplomb is the fact that counts.  

From here, Del Potro looked to have the momentum which would propel him to victory.

But Soderling held fast.  The imposing Swede, long on a commodity known as belief, does indeed seem ready for the big time. He's confident these days, and he can be utterly dominant when he is playing with confidence.   Undeterred by his ill-willed foe, Soderling set out to reconquer. He didn't just find the momentum as the 3rd set began, he grabbed it back.  

Soderling's confidence, exhibit A:  Soderling did not sink beneath the weight of his disappointment in the conclusion of the second set. Instead he stiffened.   He maintained his swagger as the final set began, and proceeded to parlay his big serves into easy looks at winners.   Capitalizing, he drew first blood by breaking Del Potro's serve with two consecutive grade-A returns that put the Argentine on the defensive.

It was impressive stuff by Soderling indeed, but when he was looking for a quick ending to his work, the script flipped.

While looking to consolidate his break, Del Potro grabbed the pen.

When the tennis ball fuzz settled on the hard court, the theme of this match became apparent: Juan Martin Del Potro is getting very good at gutting out victories.  Add to that the fact that he can, at least at the moment, summon his most impressive and otherworldly abilities when the situation most desperately calls for it, and you've got a lethal combination.

They call it clutch, and you're nothing in tennis if you're not clutch. Del Potro has the uncanny ability to reach new heights under pressure. He senses how to steal the momentum and make it his friend.  Once Juan Martin Del Potro has momentum in a match, it's hard to wrestle it back from him.  He got it back in the third set by being clutch and by hitting through the ball when the pressure was on.  He never let it go after that.

Del Potros clutchness, Exhibit A:  In the very first point of the tiebreaker, the gentle giant from Tandil outlasted Soderling in a raging heavyweight-style rally that finally came to an end when Del Potro sent a letter-perfect inside-out backhand winner down the line as Soderling stood at the service hash.

How did Del Potro play so effortlessly there?  What is this special something - this something that Nadal had going for him just 1 short year ago - that brings players through to the other side?

What is it that turns a player's tools into a very compelling tour-de-force who seems made for winning Slams?

Whatever it is - that precious commodity, that je ne sais quoi - it seems that Del Potro has the lions share of it at the moment.

Take no credit from Soderling, this match was a veritable clinic of a match. He did everything he could to get on the winning end of the 6-7-(1), 6-3, 7-6(3) thriller.   Del Potro just beat him to the finish line.
As usual, there was more to the tennis than the score indicates.

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