RIO DE JANEIRO — Juan Martin del Potro is back, and Novak Djokovic is gone.
The top-ranked Djokovic was swept out of the Olympic tennis tournament in the first round Sunday by the 2009 U.S. Open champion 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2). Because of three left wrist surgeries, 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 that clinched victory on his second match point. The two shared a long embrace at the net, with both players left sobbing.
These two men faced off for bronze in London four years ago, with del Potro winning. When he arrived at Wimbledon this year, though, he hadn’t appeared at a major in 2 1/2 years. He would upset fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka in the second round there, 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.
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.
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, still left seeking his first Olympic gold medal, was upset in the third round at Wimbledon by 41st-ranked Sam Querrey after winning the Australian Open and French Open. He won a hard-court tuneup in Toronto before coming to Rio de Janeiro.