Friday, January 21, 2011

Baby Steps

In a weird way, a second round loss might have been the best possible scenario for Juan Martin del Potro at the 2011 Australian Open.
Now that it's over, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

As much as we all wanted to see delpo burst onto the scene and pick up where he left off, slashing and burning his way through the competition like a man possessed, wielding his racquet like a mighty swordsmen, and generally wreaking havoc in that way that only delpo can, we all knew that what was far more important this week was what we didn't want to see.

We didn't want to see that wrist take him off the court again.

Please, no. Not again. NEVER AGAIN.

Because if there is one thing that we've all learned about tennis during the time that Juan Martin del Potro has been on the sidelines rehabbing from wrist surgery, it is this: it's far more exhilarating to follow a tournament when the big man is in the draw.

Watching del Potro in action in Melbourne this week was like having a message in a bottle wash up on the beach as you're sitting on a blanket, watching the sun set with a margarita in your hand.

"What's that?" you think, as you head over to inspect the bottle. You pull the cork and shake the contents out, slowly unfold the ancient paper, and begin to try to decipher the message.

"Hmm, maybe it's a note from what's her name, the one I met on," you think, when out jumps delpo, racquet high above his head, shoulders square to the ball. He swings, and launches a blistering cross court forehand accompanied by a grunt that is part caveman and part wild boar, and you fall back on your blanket in glee.

"Oh, delpo, where've you been all my life," you say, sipping your margarita.

But we know where he's been. He's been to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for wrist surgery, and he's been to rehab, rehab, and more rehab, and the sad truth of the matter remains: even though he did the surgery eight months ago, he's still got some issues with the thing.

He told Pam Shriver that it was hurting him a little bit after his win over Dudi Sela, and he had the trainer out last night in his four-set loss to Marcos Baghdatis. All of this should come as no surprise -- all you have to do is look at the barbaric cuts that delpo takes at the ball to realize that his surgically repaired wrist is going to be under significant strain when he ramps up to full speed again.

So, in a strange way, it was kind of good news that del Potro lost last night. Of course, you never want to lose, especially in a Slam, but given the fact that the wrist was bugging him, it's probably better that he doesn't have to show up tomorrow night to see if he can hit Jurgen Melzer onto the next continent (Asia, right?).

It was also good to see del Potro's concern, because I think at this point he's better off taking precautions with it then coming out all gangbusters, trying to rip the cover off the ball like he did in New York in '09.

Delpo needs time on the court to get back to the top-10, but right now he also needs the wisdom to know he's got a lot of time to get back. So what if he's ranked in the 400's all year long?

There's only one battle that the Argentine needs to win this year, and that is the battle of learning to maintain a level of health that affords him the opportunity to be great for a long period of time. Everything else should be secondary right now.

So, here we are, perilously perched on a branch that hangs out over the sea.

We're waiting for a message in a bottle, but we don't know when it's coming.

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