RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Juan Martin del Potro is back, and Novak Djokovic is gone.
The top-ranked Djokovic was swept out of the singles tournament at the Olympics in the first round Sunday by the 2009 U.S. Open champion 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) in a result that left both players sobbing.
After three left wrist surgeries that had him contemplating retirement from tennis, del Potro is ranked just 145th in the world. But when the big Argentine is healthy and smacking his signature forehand around the court, his play is worthy of the gold-medal match.
It would be a forehand off the net cord, however, that clinched victory on his second match point. The two shared a long embrace at the net, with Djokovic’s legacy still missing an Olympic gold medal. He’ll be 33 in 2020.
These players faced off for bronze in London four years ago, with del Potro winning. But when he arrived at Wimbledon in June, he hadn’t appeared at a major in 2½ years. He would upset fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka in the second round there, and even though a fatigued del Potro lost his next match, it was a hint that he might yet still have some greatness left in him.
Del Potro was just 20 when he rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to stun five-time defending champion Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final. With the way his forehand rocked Federer that day, more Grand Slam titles seemed certain for the young Argentine.
Then came a string of wrist injuries, first to the right, then the left — which the righty needs for his backhand. He was still slicing often Sunday, but the two-handed shot is beginning to look more comfortable. And with the way he was booming his serves and forehand, del Potro put the pressure on Djokovic from the start.
In the second-set tiebreaker, del Petro crushed two straight forehand winners on Djokovic’s serve to take a 3-0 lead. It would be 5-0 before Djokovic scored a point.
Del Potro hit 41 winners Sunday, 29 on his forehand. Djokovic, a 12-time major champion, had more unforced errors than winners: 32-26.
At 2-2 in the first-set tiebreaker, del Potro won three straight points to take control. A big forehand that Djokovic couldn’t get back gave him three set points, and he converted the second when Djokovic’s forehand sailed wide.
Del Potro’s Sunday did not start off so auspiciously — he was stuck in an elevator at the Olympic Village for 40 minutes before Argentine handball players freed him.
“It’s very difficult because del Potro has a very important match,” one of his rescuers, Gonzalo Carou, said later.
A hugely difficult match from both del Potro and Djokovic’s perspectives — each had the misfortune of drawing each other in the first round.
It was a raucous atmosphere in the last match of the night on center court, where Argentine fans chanted for del Potro and Brazilians would try to drown out their rivals with cheers for Djokovic.
Djokovic started the year with talk of a Grand Slam after he won the Australian Open and French Open. But he was upset in the third round at Wimbledon by 41st-ranked Sam Querrey. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist seemed to bounce back by winning a hard-court tuneup in Toronto before coming to Rio de Janeiro.