TENNIS

Juan Martín del Potro winning the popular vote in Rio

The injury-plagued Argentinean knocked out Novak Djokovic on his way to the semi-finals and the crowds in Rio have got behind his unlikely run.

Juan Martín del Potro winning the popular vote in Rio
TOBY MELVILLE REUTERS

Juan Martín del Potro has always done a nice line in self-deprecation. The 2009 US Open champion, who rose to a career-high world number four the following year, knows how fortunate he is just to be back on court at the Rio Olympics, four years after he claimed a bronze medal in London.

Wrist injuries

Shortly after his success at Flushing Meadows in 2009, Del Potro suffered a wrist injury that has plagued him ever since. The problem required an operation in 2010, which saw Del Potro miss much of the season and a second bout of surgery in 2014 that wiped that year out as well. An attempted comeback the following year was curtailed by the same injury and it wasn’t until the Delray Beach Open in February of this year that the giant Argentinean was finally ready to return to action.

Comeback

In his first competitive match in over a year, Del Potro beat Denis Kudla to an outpouring of emotion from the crowd. There are few more popular players on the Tour and if goodwill alone won points, Del Potro would have swept the field in Florida. As it was, he went out in the semi-finals, narrowly, to eventual champion Sam Querrey. “This week I won more than a tournament,” a visibly moved Del Potro said. “I'm so glad to play tennis again.”

There were similar emotions on Friday in Rio when Del Potro defeated Roberto Bautista-Agut in straight sets to reach the semi-finals. The Argentinean took the heartfelt applause of the crowd -- his compatriots and Brazilian fans -- in tears. Not even Del Potro expected to be in the medal positions at the business end of the tournament.

When I saw the draw I thought by now I’d be eating lunch in Tandil with my friends by now,” Del Potro said. “Next thing I knew I was looking at it to see who my next opponent was.”

Djokovic shock

Del Potro’s first opponent was world number one Novak Djokovic. The Serb also has an Olympic bronze to his name, from Beijing in 2008, and was the favourite to add gold this time around. Del Potro, though, had defeated Djokovic in that bronze medal match in London and repeated the trick, despite being ranked 140 places lower. “I didn't expect to beat Novak tonight,” Del Potro admitted after that match. After becoming stuck in a malfunctioning lift before the game, Del Potro threw his 6”6’ frame around the court and administered plenty of punishment with his trademark forehand, a shot that even the famously obstinate Djokovic could not get to grips with.

Andy Murray, a potential opponent if Del Potro reaches the final at the expense of Rafa Nadal on Saturday, summed up the Argentinean succinctly: “When he is fit he is a great player, one of the best in the world. But he has struggled to be fit in recent years.”

There will be no more inspiring Olympic story – with the exception of the Refugee Team – in Rio if Del Potro stands highest on the podium on Sunday. And there will be few more emotional winners. “The fans get me really worked up, they help me to bring out a bit extra from myself and it’s difficult to hold it back when you win.”