WHAT HAPPENED: The way Brazilians boisterously embraced him during his silver medal run at the Rio Games said it all: The tennis world sure has missed Juan Martin del Potro.
A fan favorite since his coming out party at the 2009 US Open, where as a 20-year-old he snapped Roger Federer’s 40-match tournament win streak in a riveting five-set final, the affable Argentine has been kept away from the court for the better part of the past three years. A series of surgeries on his left wrist – in March 2014, January 2015 and June 2015 – had the former world No. 4 wondering if might never pick up a racquet again, let alone represent his homeland at the Olympics.
On Day 2 at the US Open, New Yorkers had their chance to welcome him back to the sport, one of tennis’ most beloved figures having made an improbable, against-all-odds return to the site of what remains his one and only Grand Slam title. Del Potro, now 27, made the most of the open-armed welcome, dispatching 69th-ranked Diego Schwartzman, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6, in an all-Argentinean clash to advance to the second round.
“This is my place on the tour,” said del Potro, who won 72 percent (41 of 57) of his first-serve points and totaled 11 aces. “I have great memories from this court when I won the title in 2009. It was a long time ago. I’m getting older. Thank you for the wild card – I appreciate that.”
At 6-foot-6, nearly a foot taller than his 23-year-old countryman, del Potro was in control early in Louis Armstrong Stadium. Service breaks in the third and fifth games provided enough cushion in the first set, and he promptly opened the second with another.
Schwartzman, who snapped a five-match skid with a like number of wins in Istanbul to claim his first ATP World Tour title in May (def. Grigor Dimitrov), wisely attacked del Potro’s backhand side. But his compatriot regularly employed a defensive slice, playing with patience and biding his time until he could get around to his money shot, his forehand. Del Potro would take the final set in a tiebreak, 7-3.
“It’s not easy for me to win a match after two years without competition,” del Potro told the crowd after the two-hour, 37-minute win. “Just to be here is amazing.”
WHAT IT MEANS: When he returned to the court in Delray Beach earlier this year, del Potro told reporters: “My opponent will not be the player in front of me but my injury.” Thus far, he has handled that opposition well. This summer, the Tower of Tandil reached the Stuttgart semis and scalped Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon.
In Rio, he shocked No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 5 Rafael Nadal en route to the title match. And he comes to New York as perhaps the quintessential darkhorse, a wild-card entrant ranked No. 142 in a quarter of the draw bookended by seeds Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, both of whom he has defeated in 2016. Could a semifinal run (or better) be in the works? Stay tuned.
QUESTION: Where does del Potro’s eruptive forehand rank among the best in the men’s game?