An already chippy third-round affair between Juan Martín del Potro and Lucas Pouille boiled over on Saturday evening as the players exchanged angry words moments before play was suspended for darkness with Pouille leading 6-7, 7-6, 7-5.
As Pouille returned to his chair after breaking Del Potro to win the third set, the young Frenchman complained to the chair umpire, Fergus Murphy, that his opponent had waited too long to challenge a baseline call at 15-30. Pouille had raised his right hand to indicate the ball was out – in agreement with the umpire’s ruling – but Hawk-Eye confirmed it skimmed the line, prompting a steely glare from Del Potro who seemed to perceive a lapse in sportsmanship. A frustrated Pouille then drew a code violation for profanity.
As Murphy tried to assuage Pouille during the changeover, the normally phlegmatic Del Potro interrupted to explain that Pouille’s gesture had caused the delay, with the Frenchman passing responsibility to the umpire. Del Potro punctuated his remarks by telling the 22-year-old to “shut up”.
“So he said shut up to me and you don’t say anything?” Pouille asked, with Murphy insisting he did not hear it.
The conflagration was the culmination of nearly two and a half hours of tense play that saw the players exchange angry looks and ill will throughout. The tennis itself was a showdown between Del Potro’s power-baseline game and Pouille’s clever all-court shotmaking.
Del Potro took the early edge in a first-set tiebreak, crushing a forehand winner into the open court to win the opener in 51 minutes and spinning to the grandstand and letting out a triumphant scream.
Pouille overcame a break in his opening service game of the second set as the shadows grew long on Court No12, breaking back in his only chance in the fifth game and winning a tiebreaker at 8-6 to level the match at a set apiece. That set up a third set that ended in controversy, with the referee halting play shortly after.
When Del Potro last played Wimbledon he came within four sets of winning the title, falling agonisingly short against Novak Djokovic before a rapt Centre Court crowd in the longest semi-final ever played here. That was three years ago, though it feels like a lifetime given the litany of wrist ailments, comebacks and false starts that threatened the career of the soft-spoken giant once put forth as the future of the sport.
He was 20 when he overpowered Roger Federer over five thrilling sets in the 2009 US Open final to dramatically end the Swiss master’s run of five straight titles in Flushing Meadows, one day after seeing off Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. As the first player ever to defeat Federer and Nadal in the same major, the 6ft 6in Argentinian appeared poised to tower over the sport for years to come.
But since climbing to a career-high ranking of No4 in early 2010, Del Potro has been consistent only in his setbacks, undergoing four wrist surgeries in the years since.
He entered this year’s Championships ranked 165th in the world, having played only four grand-slam matches since that epic semi-final, and none since the 2014 Australian Open. But a second-round win over Stan Wawrinka on Centre Court appeared to confirm that, at least, Del Potro was finally back.
The thunderous forehand that had once brought an imperial-era Federer to heel was on display on Saturday against Pouille, but the No32 seed used variety and a blistering first serve to keep pace with the Argentinian. They will resume play on Sunday for a place in the last 16 against either Richard Gasquet or Spain’s Albert Ramos-Viñolas.
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