Juan Martin Del Potro and Nicolas Almagro meet up for the fourth time in their careers. Del Potro is 3-0 in those previous meetings with the last coming in the Fall of 2016, when the Argentine beat Almagro 6-4, 6-3 indoors in Stockholm.
(29) Juan Martin Del Potro vs Nicolas Almagro
It was a smooth start to Del Potro’s first trip to Roland Garros since 2012. In round one, he overpowered fellow Argentine Guido Pella 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. DelPo was sharp on serve with no break points allowed and 13 aces. He would win 81 percent of his first serve points and 68 percent on his second serve. Del Potro also crafted 15 break chances off of Pella, converting five times. His ground game was a little spotty at times with 33 winners, off-set by 24 unforced errors.
Almagro was made to work harder as he overcame Marcos Baghdatis in four tight sets. After dropping the opening set in a tiebreak, Almagro reeled off three straight sets to complete the 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1) victory. Almagro was also stout on serve with 16 aces and he was broken just two times on seven chances. The Spaniard would win 82 percent of the points off his first serve and 57 percent off his second. Almagro broke Baghdatis five times on 12 opportunities. His ground game was the go big or go home variety with 67 winners, but 56 unforced errors.
Clay Play Sparse for Del Potro in Recent Years
The Argentine has only seen only 13 matches on clay since 2013. Those have all come in 2016 and 2017, where he has racked up a 9-4 record. His best result in that span came in Rome this season, where he made the quarterfinals before being crushed by Novak Djokovic 6-1, 6-4. Back before he was besieged by injuries, Del Potro was a solid clay court player, having made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in 2012. He led Roger Federer two sets to love in that match before Federer came all the way back to win in five. The 28-year-old holds four career titles on dirt of the 19 he has won overall, but none since winning Estoril for the second time in 2012.
Almagro: One Time Clay Giant Seeking Consistency
There was a time when Nicolas Almagro was a major headache on clay. During his hey-day, Almagro was a fixture in the Top 20 from June 2010 to March 2014. Injuries, much like Del Potro, have deprived the Spaniard of keeping up that calling card however. Back in his prime, Almagro made the quarterfinals at the French Open three times in 2008, 2010 and 2012. He had the misfortune of drawing Rafael Nadal in all three quarterfinals and did not win a set off the lefty. Of his 13 career titles, all have come on clay. Almagro won in Estoril last season, his first title since 2012.
Injuries began to hassle Almagro in 2014, when he was forced to miss the Australian Open and a good portion of first few months with shoulder problems. He would return and make some noise on dirt again by making the Houston final and snapping a 41-match win streak by Rafael Nadal. He defeated Rafa in Barcelona for his first win in eleven tries against Nadal. That still ranks as his lone win against Nadal, now in 16 total matches. Injury would then curtail his season once against at Roland Garros, where he injured a foot and was forced from the tournament. He would not return to the court until 2015 at the Australian Open.
Leg injuries have cropped up here and there the last two years for Almagro as he has tried to rebuilding his ranking. A calf injury forced him out of this year’s Australian Open and he did not return to action again until Match. Then in Rome just a few weeks ago, Almagro appeared to suffer a harsh knee injury that forced him out of a match against Nadal. He has apparently recovered from that, but the now 31-year-old has definitely been an injury waiting to happen over the course of the last 3-4 years.
In addition to last year’s Del Potro win at Stockholm, the Argentine also beat Almagro twice on hard courts in 2013 in Tokyo and Shanghai. He has not dropped a set against the Spaniard, but this will be their first meeting on clay. That is a big difference maker, especially for Almagro who is most comfortable on this surface. In all of their past meetings, it was the Del Potro serve that was a massive weapon. DelPo amassed 21 aces, although none in Stockholm, and was broken just one time. He would win better than 85 percent of the first serve points in the 2013 meetings, but that number dipped a bit to 76 percent last year. Almagro conversely was broken 10 times on 17 chances over the course of those previous encounters.
If you don’t enjoy baseline tennis, this match is not for you. I would expect the majority of the action to see these two glued close to the baseline. It’s where they are both the most comfortable and where both feel they can utilize their best weapon. For Del Potro, that’s obviously that power packed forehand. When he was fully healthy, his double handed backhand was a pretty solid weapon as well. Due to the numerous wrist surgeries of the past few years, some of the zip has been lost off that wing. He’s still adequate and can hit winners, just less powerful and consistent.
As for Almagro, if you don’t know his one-handed backhand …. what the hell have you been doing with your life? It may not be quite as consistent and powerful as say Stan Wawrinka or as accurate as Richard Gasquet, but it is a weapon nonetheless. For a guy who isn’t that big, lised at six feet tall, Almagro packs a wallop with this shot. He can hit it cross court and offers good variety with an inside-out look as well as the staple of hitting it down-the-line. If Nico is too give DelPo a run for his money on Thursday, he’s got to hit this shot and not be afraid to spray unforced errors. He’s got to go with that grip it and rip it style, which he did show against Baghdatis in round one.
Serve will as usual be a focal point for both. The numbers from round one show you the ability both have to control a match with powerful, rhythmic first serves. Where both can get a bit lost is when they have trouble putting first serves into play. The second serves for both can be a detriment in that case and will lead to break chances for their opponent. Consistency of course then will be the key. Almagro’s serve is underrated for its velocity when he’s got everything working in unison, so he’s got a chance to go blow for blow with Del Potro if he finds an early rhythm.
As for Del Potro, you can key in on that first serve percentage of points won and pretty much know how the match is going for him without a scoreline. In his six losses this year, he’s won less than 70 percent of the points off his first serve. He needs to be in the upper 70s or above 80 percent in that category to be at his optimum level. If he’s faltering with his first serve, more often than not, his second serve is also going to be a liability or produce a lot of stressful moments.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
Del Potro handled Almagro both in his prime several years ago and also last year, when the Argentine was in sizzling form and won the tournament in Stockholm. This is a different time and both are in different places even over last Fall. As long as Del Potro is able to keep too many balls from finding the Almagro backhand in rallies, you would think that he can wear Almagro down with his forehand and power advantage all-around. If Almagro is to keep this match tight and entertain any upset possibility, he’s got to find his rhythm early.
Cheap points off serve like he got with tha bevy of aces against Baghdatis would be a big plus against DelPo. I’m not sure he’ll get as many of those in this spot, but I do think he can contend well in each set. Whether he can keep it together in the big moments is the question. With Del Potro having shown this to be a fairly comfortable match-up in the past, I do like the 29th seed to advance – but it could be a real dogfight if Almagro brings his “A” game.
Prediction: Del Potro wins in four sets