Del Potro v2: Return of the ultra-power hitter

Five years back at the US Open, Juan Martin Del Potro created a major splash by denying Roger Federer a 6th straight title at the venue.  In the process, he also became the first player to beat both Nadal and Federer in the same tournament. A feat, by the way, that has only been replicated by Djokovic (at The Open again in 2011) since then.  He had commentators gushing over his groundstrokes which breached new levels of brutality.  What was refreshing about his style of play was that he relied on offensive, extremely flat striking, bucking the move towards attritional tennis. Since then, inexplicably, he hasn’t made another Grand Slam final.

But on Monday (and perhaps more so on Saturday when he beat Federer), Marin Cilic brought back memories of the Del Potro miracle.  Only, he delivered a more refined and even more lethal version of it.  Let’s call Del Potro v2.  Del Potro’s wooden feet and preference for a rally position way behind the baseline would later be exposed and exploited by opponents, halting his progress to further milestones.  But where DP failed to step up, Cilic took over the mantle of the ultra power hitter of his time.  

I say ultra because he is by no means the only player of the current crop trying to play this kind of game. Berdych, Tsonga, Raonic, Kyrgios, Pospisil, Rosol, arguably even Wawrinka all play variations of this approach (which is not to say they only play it as well as each other, no), which is to basically take on a higher percentage of risk and strike the ball really hard from the baseline and overpower the opponent rather than tactically work him out of court (a la Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, etc).  But none of them, barring of course, Del Potro play it in a way that looks so intimidating in its power and ferocity, like an unstoppable gale force.  

Cilic not only had such an impact on those who watched him play but also refined this approach, as I mentioned earlier, by using his feet better.  He was more willing to use an aggressive court position and also seized opportunities to move forward and take the net away from his opponent.  Interestingly enough, Federer had opined that Raonic would fare better if he learnt how to get to the net more often and more quickly and that he wasn’t getting forward enough.  Again advice that Cilic seemed to heed with telling effect.  Little would Federer have known. Cilic arguably served better, with more imagination and variety, than the aforementioned power hitters as well.  It was never just the outright power that brought down the opponents of successful power hitters.  It was the depth and quality of their shots, be it their serves or their groundstrokes.  Something that Ivanisevic likely impressed on Cilic for he served better this year than before.

The question now is, where to for Cilic from here?  Can he do the unthinkable and sustain this or did he have to give more than 100%, as Tsonga said after winning Toronto, to get the lone slam he is going to have in his cupboard?  The example of Del Potro is not very encouraging.  Nor that of Richard Krajicek who bearded the great champion Pete Sampras in his den and won the Wimbledon title in 1996, only to never make another slam final. 

History tell us that the ultra power hitting slam miracle is not repeatable because it’s too high risk.  But history is created not simply piled upon by great players.  Whichever way Cilic goes, he has time on his side.  He is yet 25.  Opponents would certainly hope he never again produces the kind of devastating form he did this year at The Open.  But if he can, he will be more than just a thorn in the flesh of competition.  

 

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