Don't overlook deceiving del Potro

Updated: September 4, 2009

The beautiful (talented) people at this U.S. Open are identified by a single name: Venus, Rafa, Serena, Roger, Novak, Maria, etc.

The youngest player in the men's top 10, one of the most exciting, gifted and ascendant athletes in the sport, is just an ordinary Juan.

Through five days, you could not find a single story about him in the voluminous USTA package of daily clips. Until Friday, he hadn't been invited to the main interview room -- which, to this point, has been the haven for upstart young Americans.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Juan Martin del Potro, the 6-foot-6 Argentine. Hard to believe, but the No. 6 seed here at the National Tennis Center has only been a force at the top for a year or so. It sure seems longer.

Last year, he blazed white-hot into the U.S. Open and reached the quarterfinals of his first Grand Slam. Only Andy Murray, himself an upwardly mobile youth, was able to end del Potro's 23-match, four-tournament title run. In the course of the summer, Del Potro bang-zoomed from No. 65 to 13th in the ATP World Tour rankings.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Juan Martin del Potro has not lost a set though three rounds at the U.S. Open.

This year, del Potro climbed as high as No. 5 and had another nice summer season, reaching the finals in Washington (beating Roddick in the final) and Montreal (beating Roddick in the semifinal before losing to Murray in the final). Citing fatigue, he withdrew from Cincinnati.

He has quietly gone about his business at the U.S. Open, arriving here in the third round with little fanfare. Del Potro struggled early in his Friday match with Jurgen Melzer, the tenacious Austrian. He erased an early service break, a 1-3 deficit in the first-set tiebreaker and then a set point.

The final was 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-3 and, like everything else, it was only deceptively easy. There is a languid, seemingly effortless quality to his strokes; it's jarring to look at the screen displaying serve speeds and see 130 miles per hour.

Certainly, these swift courts agree with his big game.

"This is my favorite Grand Slam," Del Potro said afterward. "I love to play here. I have a good respect for this tournament. I want to be quiet with my matches, with my game, and then we will see."

Because Del Potro is the third-youngest player in the top 100 (five days older than No. 17 Marin Cilic and more than a full year older than No. 98 Kei Nishikori) he still has a significant upside.

His biggest improvement has come in the ace department. Last year, he hit a total of 295. He came into the U.S. Open with 499, an average of nearly three more per match -- a big jump.

"I beat Roddick, González, and they are very good players on this kind of surface," Del Potro said. "But if I want to be a good player in the future and to beat Murray, Federer and Djokovic on this surface, I will try."

Five things we learned on Day 5

1. Flavia Pennetta remains the hottest player in either draw: The first top-10 Italian woman has lost exactly six games in six sets. That's ridiculous.

She dropped four games to Edina Gallovits in the opening round, zero games in second to Sania Mirza, then on Friday beat Aleksandra Wozniak 6-1, 6-1. The funny thing? She would prefer to be playing on clay, but for some reason these blue hard courts seem to agree with her.

"I think it's the court," Pennetta said. "I was talking with my coach before the match, and they told me to be very aggressive, to just focus, run in the way I always run. Everything's going perfect."

Just about. At the relatively advanced age of 27, Pennetta is playing the best tennis of her life.

"I'm starting to [get] more confidence," she said. "Tennis, it's very strange sport, because for one point everything can change. You have to be very mentally very focused in all the moments."

2. Jesse Levine and Vania King see their runs ended: Levine, the 21-year-old Floridian, was up a surprising two sets on No. 16 seed Marin Cilic before reality intervened. He won only three games in the last three sets as Cilic rolled into the third round.

Cilic won 87 of 132 points in the final three frames.

Meanwhile, King offered far less resistance against Daniela Hantuchova, losing 6-2, 6-2.

Still alive: 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, Joltin' Jesse Witten, the 26-year-old qualifier, and 6-9 John Isner. Maybe not for long -- on Saturday, they play people named Sharapova, Djokovic and Roddick, respectively.

3. Nicolas Lapentti loves to go long: The venerable Ecuadorian lost to Denis Istomin in five sets. It was the 43rd quintuple bypass for Lapentti, who is a sparkling 28-15 in those singles matches. That's tied for No. 1 among active players with Lleyton Hewitt. Marat Safin (41) is third.

4. Robby Ginepri fell (tantalizingly) just short: He saved three match points and actually had a cut at game point before Nicolas Almagro beat him 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

Ginepri, 26, reached the semifinals here in 2005, but has departed in the second or third round the past four years.

5. Watch out for Vera: No one is paying attention to the No. 7 seed, Vera Zvonareva. She beat fellow Russian Elena Vesnina 6-2, 6-4 and drew Pennetta in the fourth round.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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Serena looking forward

Williams

Nobody likes to get passed.

And yet, an aggressive, forward-thinking game can bring great rewards. Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez believes this, and it is a serviceable strategy that has given her a decent look at the world's best woman player on two grand occasions this year.

On Friday, the 27-year-old Spaniard had Williams 5-all in the second set before succumbing 6-3, 7-5. She served and volleyed often and came to net a total of 36 times, winning 22 points. That is a 61 percent success rate -- far better than the 44 percent she took in the entire match.

"It's definitely different," Serena said of Martinez Sanchez's style. "You don't really see it that much. She's a tough player, and I knew that I had to be serious today."

Matinez Sanchez, who didn't play a match in a major for more than four years, took the opening set from Williams in their third-round match earlier this year.

The bottom half of the women's draw is loaded and it gets tougher from here. Next up is Daniela Hantuchova and then, presumably, the winner of Vera Zvonareva-Flavia Pennetta match.

Serena was asked if she was in the midst of a personal dynasty.

"Yeah," she said, "I may have a dynasty at one point in my career."

At which point?

"In early 2000."

How about now, when she holds three of the four major trophies?

"I mean, I'm not doing too shabby now, either."

Azarenka unseated

Azarenka

She was penciled in as the probable (and unfortunate) quarterfinals opponent that would draw the winner of Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters.

But Victoria Azarenka became the third of the top eight seeds to meet an untimely end when Francesca Schiavone took her down 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Azarenka slammed her racket when she double-faulted on match point.

So far, we've lost No. 4 Elena Dementieva, No. 5 Jelena Jankovic and No. 8 Azarenka.

"My tactic was to push and to push her far away, because when she puts the foot inside, is not easy to play against," Schiavone explained. "So I was trying to hit long and sometimes to open the angle and to be aggressive, to go to the net, to have a good serve.

"A lot of things. You have to play everything good."

Tweets of the Day

Lisicki

Sabine Lisicki: It was very unlucky what happened yesterday. I'm very disappointed but I'll come back stronger! I'm a fighter!

Bryan Bros: Good day at the courts. Enjoying spending time with my mom. She usually stays away because of the nerves, but she is sacking up this week.

Anne Keothavong: I was not friends with the arm bike machine this morning. Arms are still shaking.

Critic's Choice

Robredo

James Blake versus Tommy Robredo: Blake struggled against the diminutive Belgian, Olivier Rochus, in the second round. But Robredo is no Rochus. The Spaniard has been to the fourth round here five times -- book him for a sixth.

ESPN.com prediction: Robredo in five.