The big man is back.
In his first grand slam event for two and a half years after a series of false dawns following wrist surgery, Juan Martín del Potro produced a performance that surely even he did not think he was capable of at this stage of his comeback. His 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 second-round win over the No4 seed, Stan Wawrinka, was his best win since he returned to the tour full-time in March and, more importantly, showed that the 27-year-old Argentinian may just be on track to return to the form that won him the US Open in 2009.
“It is an amazing sensation for me,” said Del Potro, whose hands were shaking after he came off the court. “I beat one of the guys who’s playing great tennis this season. I couldn’t expect this victory today but I played much better after the first set. I was so happy to be on court, the score didn’t matter, but now I am really happy. After my third surgery, it’s like my second or third career in my young life. I just want to play tennis again. It’s a great sensation for me. I feel alive.”
Having undergone right wrist surgery in 2010, which kept him out for a year, Del Potro made it all the way back into the top 10. In some ways, it could be argued that he had a hand in Andy Murray’s 2013 Wimbledon win, his effort in pushing Novak Djokovic so hard in an epic semi-final perhaps contributing to the Serb’s performance in the final.
In 2014 Del Potro required an operation to his left wrist, which did not work and left him in pain, wondering if he would ever play again. At his lowest point, Del Potro was close to hanging up his rackets but, helped by chats with the likes of Lionel Messi, he decided to give it one more go and has been climbing back up the rankings. He still struggles to hit through his two-handed backhand but his serve and forehand remain big weapons and here he looked like his old self as he clinched a satisfying victory that was equally popular with the crowd.
As he has worked to build up strength in the wrist, his backhand slice has improved beyond recognition and Del Potro, now ranked No165, said he hopes that when he is 100 per cent again he may even be better than in the past.
“I am trying to hit my backhand as I did in the past but sometimes I don’t feel confident enough to do it, so I am using the slice a lot,” he said. “I have to do two to three hours a day with treatment, exercise, workout and flexibility, everything, and after that I go to practice. Then I have to work on the backhand, so it’s not easy to do every day. I’m still confident to get back my old backhand and the doctor said I can do it. But I have to do some things with my mind. Two or three months ago I could only hit slice, now I can hit some returns harder and that for me is a small thing but good thing. In future, if I can get all the shots in my game, I could be a better player.”
Having skipped the clay-court season to give him more time to strengthen his wrist, the 2009 US Open champion reached the semi-finals in Stuttgart but was beaten by John Isner in the first round at Queen’s. Nothing there suggested he might be capable of upsetting Wawrinka, even if the two-times grand slam champion has never been beyond the quarter-final here. The Swiss looked in control when he took the first set but Del Potro settled down in the second set, his thumping forehand reverberating inside the Centre Court under the roof, which was closed from the start.
A Wawrinka double-fault handed Del Potro the vital break in the second set and with the No4 seed making several uncharacteristic errors, even on his usually brilliant one-handed backhand, the Argentinian levelled the match.
The pair traded four straight breaks of serve at the start of the third set but Del Potro took it on the tie-break, 7-2. Wawrinka saved two break points at 2-3 in the fourth but Del Potro broke two games later and served out to set up a match with No32 seed, Lucas Pouille of France.
Wawrinka, who had taken on the 1996 Wimbledon champion, Richard Krajicek, as an adviser for the grass-court season, said he had allowed himself to over-think. “I gave him the break with a double-fault and then it wasn’t easy,” she said. “He was in front with a break, he was always serving big, serving good. I started to play a little bit too much between, not playing completely free, not playing aggressive enough and I didn’t find a way to come back in the match. At the end it’s a tough loss, but he also deserves it because he went for it.”
Del Potro has never played Pouille but, as the tournament tries to catch up after a week of interruptions, recovering physically for Saturday’s clash could be tough. “I don’t have a day off, so it’s going to be a challenge for me to play another five-setter but I think the surface could help me because usually matches are not that long on grass.”
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