Juan Martin del Potro’s day ended far better than it started after he toppled world No1 Novak Djokovic in the opening round of the Olympic tennis tournament on Sunday night. Buoyed by a rollicking crowd and a reinvigorated forehand, the soft-spoken Argentine prevailed 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-2) in a highly entertaining match of exquisite quality.
The rematch of the bronze medal match from four years ago – when Del Potro won in straight sets at the All England Club – had been scheduled for the early afternoon, but the freakishly high winds at midday caused a delay in the order of play. Those same winds had caused localized power cuts at the athletes’ village, which left Del Potro trapped in an elevator for 40 minutes.
But the atmosphere on the nearly-full 9,165-seat main show court at the Olympic Tennis Center was all the better under the lights as the well-lubricated audience chanted, sang, waved flags and cheered raucously between every point, leaving chair umpire Pascal Maria practically hoarse from calling for order.
“Two and a half hours of spectacular intensity,” Del Potro said afterward. “The crowd enjoyed it a lot. I was tired, but at the same time I was very happy to be on the court. I wanted to win, but I also wanted to match to go on because everything was wonderful. The crowd itself put on a show in a very respectful way.”
The 6ft 6in Argentinian once put forth as the future of the sport after subduing an imperial-era Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open final is down to No145 in the world after a litany of wrist ailments, comebacks and false starts that threatened his career.
But he defeated No4 Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon in June despite entering the tournament having played only four grand slam matches since 2013, none since the Australian Open two years ago. And now Sunday’s emotional win, which although decided in a best-of-three-sets format unlike the grand slams, will no doubt bolster his confidence ahead of this month’s US Open in Flushing Meadows – to say nothing of this week.
“It was a wonderful evening from the beginning,” Del Potro said. “Since the draw, the anticipation was very high and I believe I did what I planned for the match. I didn’t expect to beat him. I’m surprised with the level I showed. After all the effort I’ve put in to get back to playing tennis, I’ve defeated the No1.”
Del Potro took the early edge in a first-set tiebreak, pounding a forehand into the corner to take the opener in 51 minutes. He’d already crushed 20 winners by then – twice Djokovic’s 10 – including 15 off a forehand that at times seemed to approach pre-injury vintage.
The 27-year-old was even better during the second set, when he hit 21 winners against only nine unforced errors and got the better of the 12-times grand slam champion on a series of electric baseline rallies.
Djokovic came within two points of defeat on several occasions when serving at 4-5 in the second, battling back to level the set and eventually force another tiebreaker. But Del Potro rattled off the first five points – including a weapons-grade forehand down the line on the third which brought the crowd to their feet – and led 5-1 going into the changeover.
Moments later Del Potro ripped a cross-court forehand on match point that clipped the net and bounced inside the line to give him the victory after 2hr 27min. As the crowd erupted around them, the players shared an extended embrace at the net and parted misty-eyed.
“Delpo was the better player and he just deserved to win,” Djokovic said. “That’s sport. He just came up with some extraordinary tennis and I have to congratulate him.
“No doubt this is one of the toughest losses in my life and in my career. It’s not easy to handle, especially now, just after the wounds are still fresh. But, you know, you have to deal with it. It’s not the first or the last time I am losing a tennis match. But the Olympic Games, yeah, it’s completely different.”
The result denied Djokovic, who has now lost three straight matches in Olympic play dating back to a semi-final defeat to Andy Murray in London, a chance of joining Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal as the only men to complete a career golden slam: all four major singles titles plus an Olympic singles gold. That disappointment was not lost on Sunday’s winner.
“He’s a great champion, a friend for a long time,” Del Potro said. “I know how important this event was for him. He wanted the gold medal, but I also believe he knows about my effort. I talked to him all through my rehab. I’ll always be thankful for his words. We respect each other so much. It was a spectacular match from any point of view.”
The upset leaves Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as the top seed in the quarter, with Del Potro advancing to face Portugal’s João Sousa in the second round on Tuesday.
This article was written by Bryan Armen Graham at the Olympic Tennis Center, Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th August 2016 03.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010