Federer vs Del Potro: What About Delpo’s Backhand?

After going through hell with wrist problems, missing years of tennis, three surgeries, and a hard look at ending his career, Juan Martin Del Potro is back in the quarterfinals of the US Open.

But let’s get right to it: What about the backhand?

The insanely popular Argentine has been suffering with an interesting, new-era sort of injury: Massive wrist problems on the non-dominant hand.

It’s the left wrist of a right-handed player with a two-handed backhand.

As “Delpo” has climbed back into Top 30 in the world–something many thought impossible–he’s had to figure out what to do about that stroke.

His options have been:

(1) Convert to a one-handed backhand. Some would snicker and scoff, but hey–he’d never use that left wrist again. Seems intuitive. Before you completely dismiss the idea–make no mistake–the 28-year-old monster of an athlete could do it. He’s world class. He can do anything he wants. But two elite-level coaches I spoke with said the problem here is time. They both estimated it would take two years of training to convert the backhand to the point of making it a truly great stroke. That would take away from crucial emphasis on other areas of his game, like his forehand…

(2) Which brings us to option #2: Aggressively run around the backhand to hit forehands, which is his unmitigated weapon–at 100 mph, arguably the best forehand in the world. The problem here is that the rangy 6’6” star doesn’t move exceptionally well. Footwork, baby, footwork.

(3) Hit more slice. This seems to be the popular choice among tennis pundits, but Del Potro has said he doesn’t like doing it. Pretty much ends that discussion.

(4) “As you were.” In other words, try to rebuild the two-handed topspin or drive backhand. Test the surgically repaired wrist. Make technical tweaks. Either the wrist will hold up or it won’t–whatever will be will be.

On the epic Del Potro vs Dominic Thiem American telecast Monday night, Delpo’s backhand was discussed a good bit. ESPN’s Darren Cahill made the statement that Delpo has been hitting over 50% slice on that side. But “Killer” sounded a little unsure about that, and in fairness, it was probably something handed to him by a statistician.

It’s an open secret that stats and analytics are the Wild West in tennis right now. Nobody’s sure what’s reliable. There is no Elias Sports Bureau for tennis. Even IBM’s numbers are often called into question. So it’s unclear where that “over 50% slice” stat came from or what the time parameters were. It very well could’ve involved Wimbledon, where it absolutely makes sense to slice.

But what’s he doing now?

A quick check of that very US Open match against Thiem reveals that he was in fact hitting topspin or drive roughly two thirds of the time.

Not much slice at all.

Del Potro’s post-match comments jibe with that: “My backhand is not good enough yet, but I’m still trying,” he said.

Ah! Obviously Delpo’s committed to Option (4)— at least for the moment.

How will his confidence in that wrist hold up against Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time?

Federer is the master of putting the ball wherever he damn well pleases, including but not limited to his opponent’s weakness.

Delpo’s wrist will likely face its biggest test of his comeback so far.

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