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Photographs by Reuters and AFP
Photographs by Reuters and AFP

Letter from the baseline... with a remote

As the pillars of tennis collapsed in 2016, two 'unlikely' successes have emerged from the rubbleAndy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro

Down two sets to love, 15-15 in the first game of the third set against Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro found himself in a tricky spot last Sunday. Croatia was, at that stage, leading 2-1 in the five-match Davis Cup team tennis final against Argentina in Zagreb. If Argentina’s Del Potro had lost that match, Croatia would have won the title.

Making his umpteenth comeback of sorts into professional tennis this year, Del Potro, a chronically injured, fragile player, could have dug deep and battled it out. Much depended on him since Argentina had lost four times in Davis Cup finals before and needed this maiden title. He could have tightened up and cut out risks to ensure he stayed in the match.

Instead, he lobbed. From between the legs. With his back to the net. On Cilic’s serve.

The lob is an unglamorous, underrated but audacious shot in tennis, risky and not the easiest to get right. Depending on the situation, a between-the-legs shot or tweener can be a gimmick or an act of desperation and sometimes a calculated risk.

Whatever the reason, Del Potro got it right, clawed back into the match, won it in under five hours and then saw teammate Federico Delbonis beat Ivo Karlovic in the final rubber for Argentina to win the tie 3-2. Diego Maradona danced in the aisles at his country’s triumph, a man himself used to making seemingly risky moves to effective ends during his glorious football-playing days.

What has been interesting about tennis in 2016 has been its, as a cricket commentator in India would say, “glorious uncertainty". It has not been a great year for the establishment—Roger Federer (no Grand Slams, injured for the latter half of the year), Rafael Nadal (still in and out of persistent injuries) and Novak Djokovic (an unexplained, rapid decline in the second half of the year, though he did win the Australian and French Opens).

But from the rubble of these collapsing pillars of tennis—also borrowed from a piece of cricket commentary—have emerged two unlikely successes, including Del Potro—that tweener was, more than anything, a sign of confidence.

To call Andy Murray an unlikely success is a fascinating misnomer. He has been the world No. 2 for a long time—he first reached that spot on 16 August 2009 and has spent a total of 76 weeks in that position. But it’s because he has spent so long as the world’s second best that we tend to forget that he could have climbed up one spot any time.

He was more than 8,000 points behind Djokovic in the rankings after losing the French Open in June. Yet, by November-end, he was the new No. 1 with a 905-point lead over the Serb.

Apart from their relative successes this year—Murray has nine titles, including Wimbledon and the Olympic gold, and Del Potro was ranked 1,045 in early February; he finished November at world No. 38—there is something melancholic about them. With slumped shoulders, unshaven faces, only occasional smiles and an almost sadness in their demeanour, both give a defeatist impression at first.

But on court, it has been a different story, one highlighted by persistence, belief and, of course, sheer ability.

Del Potro has had multiple wrist surgeries over the past few years, had almost given up playing tennis, can barely hit a backhand now, but has beaten all top players this year, including Djokovic, Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Murray. He has won ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year for the second time—only two other players have that honour.

Always a fairly popular player, the hopelessness of his career, the pain of his injuries and the sheer what-if factor—evident from the time he won the US Open as a 20-year-old in 2009—made him more endearing this year on his return.

He wore his emotions on his sleeve, joining vanquished Djokovic on the net as both men sobbed after their Rio Olympics first-round match and breaking into tears towards the end of his match against Wawrinka at the US Open as the crowd chanted “Delpo, Delpo". He lost the match, but clearly won over the crowd.

While it’s easy to connect the decline of the Big Three to Murray’s ascent, there’s so much that’s heroic about the Scotsman besides a dogged persistence, as Deepak Narayanan pointed out in a Mint column.

Murray is the oldest player to get to No. 1 for the first time, since John Newcombe, who was 30 in 1974. This year, he became a father, went back to Ivan Lendl as coach and, with greater confidence, also emerged as the most sensitive, progressive and erudite professional player.

He puts family above all else—“I’d rather be getting up in the middle of the night and helping (my daughter)," he told the Daily Mail, “than winning every tennis match and her thinking when she grows up, ‘Actually, you know what, he was a s----ty dad, but he won a lot of tennis matches’."

He was the first male pro to hire a female coach—Amelie Mauresmo in 2014 (they parted ways this year). He is a rarity among male players to support equal pay for women. “Have I become a feminist?" he wrote in a blog in June for French newspaper L’Equipe. “Well, if being a feminist is about fighting so that a woman is treated like a man, then yes, I suppose I have."

When he was congratulated after Rio as “the first person ever to win two Olympic gold medals", he corrected the interviewer: “Well, to defend the singles title... I think Venus and Serena (Williams) won about four each."

Both Del Potro and Murray are in their late 20s, so they are not going to be the “next big thing" in tennis. The former threatens to disintegrate anytime; the latter has to contend with the Big Three (plus Wawrinka) who are still lurking around and may return renewed in 2017. Younger players with promise, like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Lucas Pouille, still seem some distance away, which makes this a year of flux.

But in 2016, these two players added elements of the unexpected to men’s tennis, a touch of unconventionality, a surprise, a shared relief, and a change. Watching them play (on TV) helped me be less judgemental and not succumb to preconceived notions about people or circumstances.

Del Potro got himself an extra sheen of heroism, which will hopefully continue to shine in 2017. Murray, the least popular of the Big Four, did much more than reach the top.

He became likeable.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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