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Juan Martin del Potro brings big tennis game back to L.A.

Juan Martin del Potro embraces the idea that soon he may be considered a tennis equal of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

He won’t say it yet because Andy Murray is ranked fourth and spoken of as part of tennis’ “Big Four,” but the 22-year-old Del Potro already has something Murray doesn’t.

A major title.

In 2009, in succession, Del Potro beat Nadal and Federer in the semifinals and final of the U.S. Open.

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Del Potro was then 20, and it was the way he slugged the fight out of Federer that seemed to portend a bright future and many more big wins for the 6-foot-6 Argentine who smiles easily and always wears a gold cross because, he says, “Well, I am Catholic.”

Del Potro arrived in Los Angeles on Sunday from his home in Tandil, Argentina, and he will be the second-seeded player at the Farmers Classic tennis tournament, which begins Monday. Del Potro will play his first match Wednesday night against the winner of a first-round battle between Michael Berrer of Germany and James Blake.

Del Potro won this event in 2008, beating Andy Roddick in the final.

With his 2009 U.S. Open victory, it seemed as if Del Potro would be a top-five player by now. Instead he’s ranked 19th, following surgery on his right wrist in spring 2010.

There was a moment, Del Potro said, where he was nervous about his future in tennis.

“First I was thinking I could fix it quickly when it started hurting,” Del Potro said Sunday after his first warmup hit at the Los Angeles Tennis Center. “So I played again and everything was worse and I start to think, ‘OK, need surgery. Will I play again?’

“Now I only think, ‘OK, my physical self is fine now and it is up to me again to be where I want.’ ”

Del Potro has one well-educated tennis fan familiar with success who believes in him. Pete Sampras, who has 14 major titles, spoke highly about Del Potro on Friday.

“I am a big proponent of his game,” Sampras said. “He has a murder serve and I like the fact he hits a pretty flat ball. That’s not easy for a guy of his height. I also like his big attitude. He’s not afraid of winning or saying he wants to be right there with Nadal and Djokovic and Federer. And part of his attitude is that he’s willing to take chances. In that way he’s a little like Federer. Federer will go for big shots and he’s willing to miss, but the makes can be incredible. DelPo is the same way.”

Del Potro grew up in Tandil, a city of about 100,000 people 190 miles south of Buenos Aires. In the last decade, five players from Tandil have been ranked in the ATP’s top 100 — Del Potro, Mariano Zabaleta, Juan Monaco, Maximo Gonzalez and Diego Junqueira.

“I don’t know what it is,” Del Potro said. “But the people seem to be proud of tennis players. I think they are still celebrating my win at the U.S. Open.”

Because of his wrist injury and 10-month absence from the tour, Del Potro’s ranking fell to about 500th.

“I was hoping to be back in the top 20 this summer,” he said. He has won two tournaments this year and played against Nadal in the fourth round of Wimbledon. Del Potro lost to the Spaniard in four sets; two of them were tiebreaks.

“I felt at that moment as if I was really back, so close,” he said.

Although Del Potro said he forces himself to focus only on the tournament at hand, where he is right now, he can’t help peeking ahead a bit. Because of his surgery, Del Potro missed his chance to return to the 2010 U.S. Open as defending champion, to feel the appreciation from the New York crowd.

“It was an amazing moment when I win,” he said. “I really do love to play here in the U.S. and I think, anyway, it will still be amazing when I get to the U.S. Open this year.”

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin


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