Published On: Sun, Aug 28th, 2016

Pica Power or Dauntless Delpo: Which Olympic hero will make a US Open splash?

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At the Rio Olympics, with the No. 1 player on both the men’s and women’s side falling early, and various other top players withdrawing, two unlikely upstarts stormed in and stole center stage, as Juan Martin del Potro and Monica Puig flashed glimpses of how dangerous they can be when locked in and inspired.

Even accounting for depleted-draw caveats, neither did it the easy way.

Del Potro beat the world Nos. 1 and 5 (Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal) on his way to the men’s silver medal, and Puig beat Nos. 2 and 3 (Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza) on her way to women’s gold.

Each won in markedly different ways – the 6-foot-6 del Potro with a booming serve and nuclear forehand, the 5-foot-7 Puig with swift movement and searing, sharp-angled backhands – but each played with an insistent fearlessness that put the world on notice.

Whether either of them can bottle that Olympic magic and unleash it again at the US Open is another matter.

Who has a better shot at sustaining his/her success in New York? We make the case for and against each:

Why it will be Delpo

What del Potro has that Puig lacks is a track record of Grand Slam success. Once upon a time, he nearly busted up the Big Four before it coalesced, winning the US Open as a 20-year-old in 2009, when Andy Murray had no meaningful hardware to his name and Djokovic had just one major trophy on his shelf.

In Rio, seven years on, del Potro proved he’s still got the goods. He was one of the only players able to hit through the molasses-slow court, proved physically resilient when it seemed he should’ve been breaking down, and looked almost like his old (young) self again.

As an unseeded wild card, del Potro couldn’t have asked for a more favorable draw at the US Open, with his quarter headlined by the unreliable Stan Wawrinka (who he just beat at Wimbledon) and the hobbled Dominic Thiem. Del Potro looks primed to re-establish his presence at the top of the men’s game.

Why it will be Puig

Shocking as it was, Puig’s gold-medal victory wasn’t a complete aberration; she’d been enjoying the best season of her young career, while incrementally building toward a breakthrough. She’s upped her aggression, making a point of taking the ball earlier, shrinking her margins, and going bigger.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was how routinely Puig dusted her higher-ranked opponents. She made mincemeat of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, obliterated Muguruza and Laura Siegemund with a pair of double-breadsticks, and finished off Kerber with a dominant third set. Belief is a powerful weapon in tennis, and Puig should have it in spades now that she’s shown herself what she’s capable of.

Also working in her favor – there’s less semblance of an established order in the WTA at the moment. Look past Serena Williams (who isn’t 100 percent anyway), and you’ll find a chaos of insurgency and collapse, upsets and letdowns. If Serena falters, Puig has as good a chance as anyone to step in and fill the power vacuum.

Why it won’t be Delpo

Another thing del Potro has that Puig doesn’t: Baggage.

He won that first major in 2009, and you probably know what’s happened since. The four wrist surgeries – one on his right (dominant) wrist, the last three all on his left – that have left him with a backhand that would draw guffaws on the Challenger circuit. The interminable ups and downs, long recoveries, and struggles to regain his fitness; the steel-toed boot of circumstance kicking him callously back down the mountain any time he’s appeared ready to crest the summit once more. Del Potro’s only 27, but he already seems like a world-weary, worn-down vet.

As long as his backhand is in the shape it’s currently in, he’s going to have to work harder than his opponent. He’s going to have to run further if he wants to repeatedly get around to his forehand, or else engage in long exchanges when his opponent attacks his weaker wing and forces him to slice the ball back. Consider how run-down del Potro looked mere points into his gold-medal match against Murray. That was after five matches in the best-of-three format. Can you imagine him at the end of five or six best-of-fives?

Why it won’t be Puig

Puig played virtually perfect tennis in Rio, somehow combining a go-for-broke approach with mistake-free results. She demonstrated what she’s capable of when everything clicks, but nothing in her playing history – which features just one WTA title – suggests she can reach that same level with any kind of consistency.

Puig can wallop the ball from the baseline, but her in-between game still needs a good deal of work, especially since she doesn’t get many free points with her serve. She’s just 22, giving her plenty of time to round out her game. She may well do so, and become a perennial Slam contender in the coming years. But for now, expecting her to catch lightning in a bottle for a second straight tournament, is expecting too much.

The verdict

In the long run, because of her comparative youth and health, and the WTA’s instability, we’d give Puig the slight edge when it comes to winning a major. At the US Open though, we’re picking del Potro to make a deeper run.

Puig’s lack of experience could leave her more vulnerable to a letdown after a physically and emotionally draining month of tennis. And though she nabbed the final women’s seed when Sloane Stephens withdrew, her draw is still a touch trickier than del Potro’s – with a potential third-round grudge match against Muguruza looming.

Regardless, watching both players try to back up their incredible Olympic runs, with vocal crowds that are certain to get behind them, should be one of the highlights of the tournament.

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