x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Del Potro only one star missing in Mubadala World Championship line-up

There is no reason to be greedy when six of the top 10 names are playing but the wishlist would have been complete if the Argentine also could have made it.

Rafael Nadal tops the star-studded line-up that will hit the courts in Abu Dhabi. Mark Ralston / AFP
Rafael Nadal tops the star-studded line-up that will hit the courts in Abu Dhabi. Mark Ralston / AFP

Given how stellar the line-up for the sixth Mubadala World Tennis Championship already looks, and given how much joy men’s tennis has given us over the past decade, it is probably being a little too greedy to be asking for anything more.

All the top four players will be in Abu Dhabi this winter, the first time that has happened. Six of the top nine are there, including probably one of the year’s most compelling players, Stanislas Wawrinka.

There will be a new, unburdened Andy Murray.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will also be there and he could play blindfolded and still be worth watching.

There will also be a chance to witness what Pat Cash, the former Wimbledon champion, said yesterday was tennis’s greatest rivalry, that between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. That will brook plenty of argument but he was not overplaying it all that much: it is pretty epic.

Yet, if we do acknowledge a little greed, if it still felt like there was one player you could add to this glittering roster, could it be anyone other than Juan Martin del Potro?

And, looking beyond Mubadala and into next year, into tennis’ broader narrative, could anything make next season more electric than an uninvited gatecrashing of the top three’s grand slam monopoly by the Argentine?

Del Potro is an easy guy to warm to.

There was a black and white photograph of him from a press conference after his exit in the second round at this year’s US Open in which he looked like a doe-eyed Hollywood star announcing the launch of his latest film.

To go with it though he has a public-space persona that is the spiritual and geographic opposite of Hollywood.

On court, he reveals himself slowly the longer a match goes on, as he did so charmingly at the Wimbledon semi-finals against Djokovic this year.

That shock US Open loss to Lleyton Hewitt was probably more accurate though in the bigger picture of Del Potro’s career.

Given his form in the run-in – that Wimbledon semi-final loss he called the best match of his career and he won a title in Washington in between – he was many people’s favourite to break through again at the tournament where he first made his mark in 2009 as an unexpectedly accomplished winner.

But just when it felt he might challenge the top three, the air of inevitability around him was punctured, though it was by a veteran creating his own kind of magic.

It is not as if the trio of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray (and it still does not feel normal leaving Roger Federer out of that list) do not face challenges.

There are enough dangerous floaters in that top 10; Wawrinka might be on the brink of something special.

Tsonga is good enough for at least a couple of major shocks a season.

And quietly Richard Gasquet had an impressive year, capped by his own run to the last four of the US Open.

But Del Potro should always be seen as a man apart from the rest of the contenders.

For starters, he knows what it is like to not be a contender and to be a winner.

He remains the only winner of a grand slam tournament from outside the top three and Federer since 2005.

He is also a unique proposition on the court; very tall at 6ft 6ins but a nifty, smooth mover around it.

“You just don’t see this on a tennis court, someone so big and so smooth,” as John McEnroe so excitedly said at the time of his 2009 triumph.

That forehand, too, remains the most spectacularly dangerous weapon outside that top three; flat and ferociously hard.

One, at Wimbledon, clocked in at 120mph; another, hit at John Isner in Washington could have caused an on-court casualty. And despite that US Open loss to Hewitt, he has actually had a better year than many of his recent, injury-struck ones.

On Sunday, he beat the dangerous and swiftly improving Canadian Milos Raonic to win the Japan Open. That was Del Potro’s third title of the year, following wins in Rotterdam and Washington and has moved him up to fifth in the world rankings, his highest position since early 2010.

Federer’s fade, sadly, looks more and more a permanent condition. Nadal is definitively back.

Djokovic is Djokovic, though not, right now, 2011 Djokovic.

Murray is now a multiple grand slam winner.

In its own way, 2013 was subtly unsettling at the very top of men’s tennis.

How beautiful would it be then to have Del Potro come in and make it even more so in 2014?