Wimbledon 2013: Djokovic, del Potro ride ridiculously high-level tennis to semifinals

Mike Hewitt

The 2011 Wimbledon champion and the man who defeated him in last year's Olympic bronze medal match will face off in Friday's Wimbledon semifinals after brilliant quarterfinal matches.

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He fits the stereotype perfectly: Lanky, powerful body. Huge serve. Even bigger forehand. Competent volleying ability for his size. On paper, it would seem like Juan Martin del Potro was custom built in a lab as the perfect grass court prototype. Granted, his movement at the net is only competent and not elite, but still, with that flat, devastating forehand and easy points off of his serve, del Potro was meant for Wimbledon.

Before 2013, however, the 24-year-old from Argentina (that's right, he's still only 24) had never even advanced past the fourth round at the All-England Club. He was swept out in the fourth round by David Ferrer last year. He lost in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt as the No. 5 seed in 2009. He was knocked out easily by Stan Wawrinka in the second round in 2008. He suffered a wrist injury following his transcendent run to the 2009 U.S. Open title, and after a nine-month absence, it has taken him a while to return to that level of play again.

But if his 6-2, 6-4, 7-6, win over Ferrer in Wednesday's quarterfinal is any indication, this could be a fun time to be a del Potro fan.

Let's put it this way: this isn't the only ridiculous forehand del Potro hit today:

That it came on match point after a long rally makes it a truly special moment. But del Potro played like this most of the day, despite a knee injury from an earlier-round match (one that required "magic pills," evidently), and despite taking a tumble again on Wednesday. He landed 72 percent of his first serves and won 87 percent of his first-serve points, he gave Ferrer only two break-point opportunities all match (and won them both). And as the match tightened up in the second and third set, he won over 50 percent of his second-serve points, as well. Plus, he hit 19 forehand winners (with only five forehand unforced errors). Ferrer, who, again, beat del Potro in straight sets just last year at Wimbledon and is often one of the most error-free players on tour, was on his heels all match. He committed 26 forced errors and 17 unforced errors in rallies, and even as he rallied to take the third set in a tie-breaker, del Potro never gave him room to breathe in the return game. Ankle issues gave us a less-than-optimal version of Ferrer for this fortnight, but you still rarely see him go down this easily, at least when Rafael Nadal isn't involved.

Despite the lingering injury, we saw on Wednesday the version of Juan Martin del Potro that we always expected to see on grass. If he is going to make the finals, we might need to see an even better version on Friday.

I'm not saying Novak Djokovic is part-cyborg...

...but if at some point, a scandal breaks, and we find out that he was fitted for robot parts in late-2010, would you really be surprised? Djokovic very nearly won the grand slam in 2011 (he lost only in the French Open semifinals to Roger Federer), he has won the last three Australian Open titles, and he came as close to beating Nadal in Paris as anybody not named Soderling ever has, losing by the slimmest of margins deep into five sets this past month. Even with Andy Murray surging over the past 12 months, and even with Nadal returning to form (on clay, at least), Djokovic is still No. 1. And despite a brutal draw that forced him to play seeded players like Jeremy Chardy, 2009 Wimbledon semifinalist Tommy Haas, and 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych while much of the draw completely fell apart, Djokovic has absolutely cruised.

Berdych, who had defeated Djokovic in their only grass-court meeting (a straight-set win in the 2010 Wimbledon semis), played perfectly well in taking the first set to a tie-breaker. But every time Berdych began to generate an advantage, Djokovic raised his game just enough to even things up. At 5-all in the tie-break, Berdych blinked, committing two unforced errors to hand Djokovic the first set. Berdych, another player custom-made for grass court success, immediately went up 3-0 in the second set, but Djokovic found fifth gear and cruised, winning 12 of the match's final 16 games. His serve was nearly flawless in the final frame -- he landed 80 percent of his first serves, and won not only 80 percent of his first-serve points but 89 percent of his second-serve points -- and Berdych eventually folded.

For the past three years now, Djokovic has been the best player in the world when threatened. His third-gear is enough to beat most of the world's tennis players, but when he falls behind, even briefly, he almost invariably comes up with huge shots. (This point, and match, might be the definitive example, but there have been too many examples to count at this point.) A Djokovic match is half-marathon, have-MMA, but unless clay and Nadal are involved, it always feels like the odds are on No-Djok's side.

An Olympic rallying point

Djokovic has taken eight of 11 matches versus del Potro and has won nine of ten sets between the two in slams. But del Potro doesn't have to search very far to find reasons to believe in himself. Not only did he win the last match between the two (a three-setter at Indian Wells earlier this year), but he also beat Djokovic in the Olympic bronze medal match just last July on Wimbledon's Centre Court.

We might be witnessing del Potro's second coming-out party, but it's hard to think he has much of a chance in anything less than perfect physical condition. With his knee injury and Djokovic's incredible play through the fortnight, you have to figure he is a significant underdog. But that del Potro forehand is one of the most seductive shots in the sport, and as long as he has some magic pills in his belly, he could have a shot. Both of these men played tennis at almost its highest level on Wednesday. If they can do it again on Friday, and we could have a classic.

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