The American hard-court season received two pieces of good news these past few days, one of them coming from all the way down on the Pampas -- if Juan Martin del Potro's hometown of Tandil is in fact anywhere near the great plains of Argentina.
First, Andy Roddick accepted a wild card into the maiden ATP Tour event (the ATP 250 begins next week) in Atlanta, Ga. It's about time that Atlanta, the most tennis-crazed, tennis-conscious city in the U.S., had a pro tournament again. And it's appropriate for a star of Roddick's status to help inaugurate it. I always felt that the U.S. Open Series was a great idea, although the global shift of power and the declining level of player commitment during the USO Series has diluted the product.
Del Potro's recent declaration that he hopes to be back in action to help Argentina survive the Davis Cup semifinal round (which is played right after the U.S. Open) is also a pleasant surprise. Just weeks ago, he was still looking at the fall indoor season as his potential date of return. Del Potro suggested he might even be available to defend his title in Flushing Meadows, saying, "Davis Cup is a good date for returning to tennis, but I hope I can come back sooner."
There's a connection between these two items, and although it's tenuous, it's still fun to think about. Del Potro has been the missing X factor in tennis this year. The guy was 0-6 against Roger Federer as of last August, but he overwhelmed Federer in the U.S. Open final of 2009, then showed it was no fluke when he also hammered Federer at the World Tour Championships in London a few months later. Those two wins were both on hard courts -- one outdoors, one indoors.
Rafael Nadal beat del Potro the first four times they played, but del Potro has torn apart Nadal in their past three meetings, all in 2009, all on hard courts. The message at the end of last year was clear: Tennis had a new potential game-changer, especially on his preferred hard courts.
In fact, del Potro is the paragon for an entire class of player that has given fits to the two men who have dominated the tour in recent years, Federer and Nadal. Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych are built on a similar platform and play a game more alike than different from Delpo's. That the towering, 6-foot-6 baseline slugger has been sidelined by an awful wrist injury since early this year may be the greatest single factor in Grand Slam results this year (Nadal has won two, Federer took the other).
We don't know what the future holds in store for Delpo. Confidence and routine play enormous roles in tennis, and no player in his right mind assumes that he's going to return to his or her previous form after an extended layoff. It's usually an incremental process, and nothing is guaranteed. Just ask Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters. But Delpo is just 21 and he has the resilience and hunger of youth on his side. Chances are he'll zoom right back to the top.
All this may, in some convoluted way, work to Roddick's benefit at the U.S. Open. Previous history means a great deal in tennis, and Roddick's history with Federer and Nadal isn't exactly encouraging (he's a combined 5-24 against them). But he has played only three matches against Delpo, none before a semi or a final. And although Roddick lost all three, two of them went the distance: Roddick lost to Delpo in the semis of the Canadian Masters last year, 7-5 in the third. He also lost the title match to Delpo in Washington a year ago, 7-6 (8-6 in the tiebreaker) in the third.
That's not a lot of history, nor is it a crushing narrative for Roddick. Put yourself in his shoes. Who would you most like to play for the U.S. Open title: Federer, Nadal or del Potro? And if Delpo can knock off Federer and/or Nadal, so much the better for Roddick. It would certainly make his mission less impossible.
Of course, this scenario is loaded with "ifs," but that's what an American tennis fan has to live on these days.