It’s somewhat inevitable that, during the Olympics, tennis can feel a bit ordinary. After all, these are athletes that we live with for 50 weeks a year, moving through a competition that can feel like any other week of the year. But, the rare opportunity to win an Olympic medal can make even an ordinary match seem extraordinary.
Not that anyone would call a Novak Djokovic v. Juan Martin del Potro first round match ordinary, even if it weren’t at the Rio Olympics. The four years since their bronze medal match in London have been uncommonly cruel to the gentle giant from Argentina. Multiple surgeries and failed comebacks have left him deeply appreciative of the fact that he can play at all, but markedly weaker on the backhand side. As for Djokovic, he reversed the mini-slump that included his Olympic loss in 2012, and has won 6 majors since. While exciting for fans, that this was a first round match is an uncommonly cruel draw for both players.
The drama of this match came from a surprising source — the crowd. While much has been made of Djokovic’s relative lack of popularity, he was the crowd favorite tonight. He came out ready to win hearts, with a wristband and racquet bag sporting the Brazilian yellow and green. But he also had the advantage of playing a player from Argentina, a country with which Brazil has a fierce sporting, and, at times, political rivalry. Argentinian fans rallied Del Potro with fight songs and chants, only to be shouted down by their Brazilian counterparts. For those of us who can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t love Del Potro, I saw a whole stadium full tonight.
At first, both players marvelled at the ferocity of the crowd, but soon enough, they were forced to contend with each other’s determined play. Djokovic did a lot of what he does best — retrieving and redirecting Del Potro’s forehand with greater skill than any other player on the tour. At times, it seemed that Del Potro had hit multiple winners in a rally, only to lose in the end when Djokovic blunted each of his strokes. But the real revelation was Del Potro’s ability to hang in on the backhand side. While he rarely hit over the ball, he managed to use the slice to set up his booming forehand, which has lost none of its power. Time and time again, he would trade slice crosscourt backhands with Djokovic for half a dozen strokes, only to unleash an unreturnable forehand, once he got the position he wanted. It’s a bit surprising that Djokovic, one of tennis’ greatest problem solvers, wasn’t able to overcome that set play, but the combination of Del Potro’s shotmaking and the pressure of the moment caused Djokovic to play a little under his best.
There really was not a lot separating these two, but Del Potro was able to penetrate Djokovic’s service games more frequently than Djokovic could Del Potro’s. Yet, it wasn’t because Del Potro’s serve was unreturnable. Rather, Del Potro, in retooling his game, yet again, has learned how to use the rest of his game effectively to set up his forehand, and he racked up winners almost like a pinball machine. Djokovic certainly tried to keep it close, but Del Potro managed to break open both tiebreaks early, and won the match 7-6, 7-6.
What next for Djokovic? It’s an odd year for him, for sure — two Slams, including the elusive Roland Garros title that was his primary goal for the year, but disappointments in his last two significant events at Wimbledon, and now in Rio. Like Federer in 2004 (and maybe even 2008), one can’t help but feel that this was Djokovic’s best chance to win an Olympic gold. Judging from his post-match emotion, he certainly knows this too. But, he will have to figure out how to right the ship, since he will have to face a surging field for the rest of the year. He is still in the doubles draw, so he may find a way to channel his disappointment into doubles success.
As for Del Potro, he is stringing together some nice wins, as of late. His second round win over Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon was a big step towards returning to his earlier form. Tonight’s win is an even bigger step, and one that shows that he can use his reconfigured game as a weapon. Given the relative openness of the ATP draw in Rio, he’s put himself in a good position to add more medals to his case.