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Steve Flink: Delpo Leads Argentina into Final

This has been an astonishing 2016 campaign for the one and only Juan Martin Del Potro. Before the season started, even his most diehard boosters must have believed there was a distinct possibility that his days as a top of the line competitor were over, that three surgeries on his left wrist had precariously diminished his skills, that he was almost kidding himself about any potential return to the sport's upper echelons. This extraordinary gentleman seemed to be permanently wounded, not only physically but deep in his psyche as well. Many of us longed to witness a reemergence of the Del Potro who thunderously took over the U.S. Open of 2009, cutting down Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the penultimate round, surpassing Roger Federer in an enthralling five set final.

Despite finishing 2013 stationed at No. 5 in the world—precisely where he stood at the end of 2009—this 6'6" powerhouse was headed for hard times. He played only ten official matches in 2014 and just four the following year, when two of his surgeries occurred in a five month span. The surgeries—including one on his right wrist in 2010—had taken their toll. The big man must have begun to feel much smaller, at least in the inner recesses of his mind. How he endured such a litany of bad luck we will never know, but he did just that.

Slowly, unswervingly, quietly and forthrightly, Del Potro turned 2016 into a personal revival, and a showcase for his singularly aggressive style of play revolving around a scorching first serve and an overwhelmingly explosive forehand that no one in tennis can match. He has played sparingly this year to protect the wrist, intelligently so. His season commenced at the ATP World Tour 250 event in Delray Beach, Florida and he made it to the semifinals there.

Following some early round setbacks, Del Potro went to the quarterfinals on clay in Munich, lost in the second round of Madrid, and then elected to skip the French Open to rest his wrist for the brief grass court season. He got to the semifinals of Stuttgart, fell in the first round of Queen's Club against John Isner, and then pulled off a stunning win over Stan Wawrinka in the second round of Wimbledon on the Centre Court. Although he lost in the next round against Lucas Pouille, Del Potro was moving forward. He stayed away from tournaments again until the Olympic Games at Rio, and that smart scheduling was enormously rewarding.

Del Potro toppled world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round, winning in a pair of tie-breaks. He did not waste that remarkable victory, holding back Rafael Nadal in a hard fought semifinal which went to a final set tie-break, losing a four set, four hour final to Andy Murray as the battled gallantly for the gold medal.

Knowing it would be dangerous to demand too much of himself after an exhausting Olympics, Del Potro did not compete again until the U.S. Open. He did not drop a set prior to the quarterfinals, falling in that round against a determined Wawrinka under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium. After that defeat on Wednesday September 7, Del Potro geared himself up for the Argentina-Great Britain Davis Cup semifinal, traveling to Glasgow for that confrontation.

Lo and behold, because he has only climbed to No. 64 in the world, the tall fellow had to open the best of five match team series against Andy Murray. What a way to start the proceedings! Murray was the clear favorite. He had never lost a Cup contest playing at home. All across 2015—when he almost single-handedly led the British to their first Davis Cup triumph in 79 years— Murray was a pillar of strength when representing his country, capturing all eight of his singles contests and posting a 3-0 record in doubles as well. Clearly, Del Potro had his work cut out for him if he wanted to stop Murray in the critical opening match of the 2016 semifinals. In fact, Del Potro had come out on the wrong end in six of eight career clashes against the current world No. 2.

From the outset, both men were strikingly close to the top of their games. This was tennis of the highest order, with both men going full tilt and playing a sustained brand of outstanding tennis. The opening game of this skirmish was a barometer of what was to come. Murray saved a break point and was thrice taken to deuce before holding for 1-0 with a glorious topspin lob winner off the backhand. He broke the Argentine for 2-0 at the cost of only two points, lacing a trademark backhand down the line to provoke an error from Del Potro. But Del Potro retaliated in the following game with a break of his own and gained level ground at 2-2.

Both men held until the seventh game, when Del Potro upped the ante once more, achieving the break with a scintillating forehand inside in that was unanswerable. Del Potro was soaring now, serving big, connecting frequently off his fearsome forehand, keeping Murray at bay. He held at love for 5-3. Two games later, serving for the set, Del Potro held at love, serving an ace down the T at 40-0.

Both players settled forcefully into the match over the course of the second set, which was locked at 4-4. Murray was taking second serve returns early and his discipline on serve was admirable. He held for 5-4. Serving in the tenth game, Del Potro was down 15-30 after Murray startlingly chased down a lob over his head, wheeled around swiftly, and drilled a forehand inside in passing shot that was unmanageable for his towering opponent. But Del Potro swept three points in a row for 5-5, and then Murray held on for 6-5 with a nifty angled forehand crosscourt volley winner. With the Argentine serving to stay in the second set, Murray pounced, reaching 15-40 with an impeccably produced approach shot paving the way for a high forehand volley winner. Perhaps shaken, Del Potro missed a routine two-hander crosscourt. Set to Murray, 7-5. Unsurprisingly, it was one set all.

The third set was poised at 2-2 when Murray double faulted to trail 0-40. Yet he unleashed a service winner and a pair of aces to make it deuce. Del Potro garnered a fourth break point but Murray erased that one stylishly, using a 132 MPH first serve to set up an inside out drop shot winner off the forehand. But the man from Argentina persisted, converting his fifth break point, chasing down a drop shot from the British No. 1, steering his shot down the line. Murray came back down the line with a forehand volley, but uncomfortably punched it wide.

Del Potro, however, could not consolidate that break. Murray rallied to 3-3 with a forehand passing shot winner off a weak half volley from his adversary. And yet, Del Potro broke again for 4-3, coming forward with a stinging forehand inside in, drawing a passing shot error from Murray. After four deuces in the following game, Del Potro surged to 5-3, blasting another big first serve to set up a forehand winner. In the tenth game, now leading 5-4, Del Potro served for a two sets to one lead. From a 15-40 deficit, he collected three points in a row. It was set point for Del Potro, who approached beautifully behind a deep backhand slice.

Murray should have been neutralized by Del Potro's journey to the net, but that was not the case. The British warrior came through brilliantly in the clutch with a topspin lob winner off the forehand. He soon stood at break point, and sealed it convincingly with a low forehand passing shot creating an opening for a backhand passing shot winner. It was 5-5. Both men held to bring about a tie-break, and the outcome of that sequence seemed certain to determine who would ultimately prevail in this riveting contest.

Murray was excellent in the early stages, making a terrific backhand down the line winner before following his second serve return in to force a passing shot error from his opponent. It was 2-0 for the British competitor. Del Potro took the next point but back to back aces lifted Murray to 4-1. A resolute Del Potro swept three points in a row for 4-4, but Murray did not fret, releasing an overhead winner. After Del Potro rallied to 5-5, Murray came to the net again, putting away another overhead to reach set point. Serving now at 6-5, Murray sent a first delivery out wide that Del Potro could not handle. Tie-break to Murray, 7-5. He led two sets to one. A Murray victory seemed very much in the cards.

Del Potro, however, was undismayed, breaking Murray for a 3-1 lead in the fourth set. At 30-40 in that fourth game, Murray pressed off the backhand. He realized that Del Potro had not lost heart, not in the least. In widening his lead to 4-1, Del Potro served an ace for 40-15 and then took the next point with a forehand crosscourt winner. Serving in the seventh game, Del Potro aced Murray to hold at 15 for 5-2. Two games later, he served two aces, and released two searing forehand winners. The match was tied at two sets all. The momentum had shifted appreciably. It would all come down to one set. This would be, above all, a test of character.

Murray commenced that final set with full conviction. He held at love, opening and closing that game with aces. Del Potro answered affirmatively, starting the second game with two aces of his own, holding at 30 for 1-1. After Murray moved to 2-1, Del Potro was pushed hard in a two deuce game, but held on for with a firm forehand volley winner off a backhand down the line pass from the British player. Serving at 40-30 in the fifth game, Murray double faulted. He saved a break point after that with a clutch service winner down the T, and held on confidently with a superb forehand down the line approach paving the way for a forehand volley winner.

Murray had steadfastly advanced to 3-2, yet Del Potro arrived at 3-3 after a tough deuce game on serve. Now Murray found himself under siege at 0-40 in the seventh game. He secured the next point, served an ace for 30-40 but then Del Potro stung him severely. Murray served-and-volleyed, and was seemingly in good shape when he punched his first volley crosscourt. But Del Potro raced across the court and sent a gorgeous forehand passing shot up the line for an outright winning passing shot. The big fellow had done it again, breaking for 4-3. He held for 5-3 and had a match point in the ninth game. Murray defiantly erased it with his 34th ace of the contest and held for 4-5 with his 35th.

Del Potro, though, was unswayed. He went ahead 40-15 in the tenth game and closed out the account on his own terms, serving an ace down the T. Del Potro had prevailed honorably 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4 in five hours and seven minutes. He had converted 6 of his 20 break points while Murray went four for ten. Del Potro got 71% of his first serves in while Murray finished at 52%. Those statistics were the twin motors of Del Potro's victory—his first five set triumph since 2010. He had lost seven five set matches in a row. His countryman Guido Pella came from behind to beat Kyle Edmund 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to give Argentina a 2-0 lead.

The next day, the brothers Murray—Andy and his southpaw sibling Jamie—toppled Del Potro and Leonardo Mayer 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 6-4. Andy Murray was broken at 3-3 in the pivotal third set but the British team ran out the set from there. In the fourth set, with Mayer serving to keep his tandem in the match, the Murray's wrapped up victory. They were still alive. Andy Murray opened the final day with a decisive 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win over Pella. The battle between nations stood at 2-2.

And so it all came down to the fifth match. Del Potro should have been the man representing Argentina in that situation, but he was not able to step on court. He had played too much tennis over the first two days in singles and doubles so it was understandable why he would be exceedingly cautious and not risk more injuries by competing for a third day consecutively. That meant Leonardo Mayer had to step in, and, for that matter, step up.

Mayer was ranked No. 28 in the world at the end of 2014 and No. 35 at the conclusion of 2015, but stood at No. 114 as he embarked on a critical clash against Great Britain's Dan Evans, who was put out there by captain Leon Smith instead of Edmund. Evans had played inspired tennis against eventual champion Stan Wawrinka at the U.S. Open in a five set, third round duel. The British player had a match point in the fourth set before falling.

Against Mayer, Evans started strong and took the first set, but thereafter Mayer completely outhit him from the backcourt and served his opponent off the court. Mayer lifted Argentina into the Davis Cup final with a comprehensive 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 triumph. They will meet Croatia in the final round, with Marin Cilic leading the way. Cilic won two singles matches and joined Ivan Dodig to take the doubles as his country defeated France in their semifinal.

Many neutral observers of that confrontation between countries will be pulling for Argentina, primarily because of Del Potro's vast appeal. To be sure, three men got Argentina across the finish line in the semifinal win over Great Britain: Del Potro, Pella and Mayer. But, in my view, the main man was indisputably Del Potro. He handed Andy Murray a first ever personal defeat on home soil, and succeeded honorably. Now Del Potro has wins over the current top four players in the world during an uplifting season. The feeling grows that he will approach 2017 highly encouraged, believing in himself much more than he has in a very long time, knowing he has put himself in a position to accomplish prodigiously once more.

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