Juan Martin del Potro is into the third round Juan Martin del Potro is into the third round

Del Potro stands tall

Match Report

They breed ‘em tough in Tandil – and none tougher than Juan Martin del Potro.

Softly spoken and utterly charming, DelPo is living proof that first impressions can be deceptive. Put a racquet in that man’s hands and he turns into a warrior, an assassin who will hunt down his prey until there is not breath left in his body. And by the time he had beaten Karen Khachanov 6-4 7-6(4) 6-7(0) 6-4, he was pretty much on his last gasp. But he still won.

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He has not been to Melbourne since 2014 thanks to injury (of which, more later) and now that he is back, he is beginning to remember just how tough tennis in the Australian summer can be.

“I prefer to watch these kind of matches on TV,” DelPo said. “Stay at the beach and watch on TV, drinking beer or juice. But I am so happy to be here after so many years. I had pains in everywhere, but I am still standing up. 

“These young guys are so strong and I feel like I am getting older, for sure. They are so strong. He hit harder than me the service and the forehand and I had to run a lot, but I think I took my chances to win the match. I am so happy to go through.” 

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As the Golden Age of men’s tennis draws to a close (Roger Federer may be a genius but he is 36 – not even he can go on forever), the search has begun for the successors to the multiple Grand Slam champions who have dominated the rankings for so, so long. 

The natural hunting ground is among the young and the gifted, those still in – or just freshly out of – their teens. But then there is DelPo. True enough, he is 29 (not one of your “Next Gen”, then), but after a career blighted by injury, he is still a relatively young man. 

His peers may be creaking and groaning after a dozen seasons on the road and hundreds of matches contested, but the gentle giant from Argentina (they call him the Tower of Tandil) is still a spring chicken by comparison. Season after season has been halted by injury; what should have been his best years have been lost to recovery and rehab following four operations on his wrist between 2010 and 2015. 

It all started to go wrong as soon as he won the US Open back in 2009. Then he was tipped as the only serious threat to Federer and Rafa Nadal. If anyone could go toe to toe with the two legends, it was DelPo, and when he beat Federer in five sets in Flushing Meadows, it seemed that he was ready to step up and join the big two at the top. But within months, his wrist had started to cause him problems, and his progress was stopped in its tracks. 

Every time he came back and thought he stood a chance of competing again, the injury would resurface. When, in 2016, he gave the tour one last, serious crack, he vowed it was the last roll of the dice. If his final operation had not done the trick, he would retire. But with cautious optimism, he kept working, kept doing what the specialists told him, and this week he broke back into the top 10 almost nine years after he first joined that elite band. 

After all he has been through, he knows that when he is playing well and is feeling fit, he can do real damage to anyone’s reputation.

Forehand winners
19 Karen Khachanov
34 Juan Martin del Potro

There are many similarities between the young man who did the unthinkable and beat Federer in a major final and the man who is now in the third round of Australian Open 2018. For a start, there is that forehand. It ought to come with a government health warning (‘Returning this shot can cause serious health issues to the young, the elderly and anyone who does not have a titanium arm’) and his serve is none too shabby, either.

Ordinarily, he moves exceptionally well for such a big man (he stands 198cm but somehow seems taller) but Khachanov was his level best to run the Argentine into the ground. One rally took 43 shots to resolve – and in Thursday’s stifling heat, that sort of effort was beginning to take its toll.

After three sets, DelPo was limping heavily (and losing the third set tiebreak without winning a point) and needed the trainer to massage away the pain in his left thigh and groin. This was incredibly hard work, but if the past nine years have taught DelPo anything, it is that he is made of stern stuff. Fighting through pain in order to chase his dreams has become a daily routine for him, so gritting his teeth and grinding out one more set to reach the next round was all part of the job.

Khachanov tried to make DelPo move – a wise tactic given the big fella was on one leg – but he could not land the knockout punch. That Argentine forehand was still venomous should he be standing close enough to hit it, and after three hours and 45 minutes a tired, sore but ultimately victorious DelPo headed for the locker room and a lie down.

He will be back on Saturday against Tomas Berdych to see if he still has the wherewithal to prove that even at the age of 29, DelPo is part of the bright future of men’s tennis.

18 Jan 18
Match highlights of Karen Khachanov's match against Juan Martin del Potro in the second round of the Australian Open 2018.

Juan Martin del Potro def. Karen Khachanov match highlights (2R)