Big names to expect on Day 4 of AO18
Roger Federer, Garbine Muguruza, Stan Wawrinka, Simona Halep, Alexander Zverev, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic, Ashleigh Barty - live on court at the Australian Open 2018
A lot can change in a break from professional tennis. As peers claim Grand Slam titles and climb the rankings, a new generation of potential champions also emerge.
It’s a situation that Juan Martin del Potro knows all too well. The 2009 US Open champion has not competed at an Australian Open since 2014 after undergoing multiple surgeries on his troubled wrists.
The first challenge on his Melbourne Park return this week was an opponent 10 years younger in Frances Tiafoe; that rising star navigated with a 6-3 6-4 6-3 win, del Potro now faces another Next Gen member in world No.47 Karen Khachanov.
After a quarterfinal win over the 20-year-old in Auckland last week – their only other career meeting – del Potro understands the challenge ahead. The 198cm Russian fired 21 aces among 48 winners in a straight-sets win over Peter Polansky in the first round.
But restored in the top 10 – also for the first time in four years – after he was runner-up in Auckland, the popular Argentine is also buoyed by his Australian Open return.
“It is amazing to be back in Melbourne after four years. It’s been a while and I’m so happy to be playing tennis again. The atmosphere here is unbelievable,” del Potro said after winning before scores of supporters adorned by his national blue and white on Tuesday.
“I think the people like my effort to come back and play tennis. I was close to quitting a few years ago but now I’m here, I’m healthy, I’m playing tennis again and (the crowd) make me feel so happy playing this tournament.”
Del Potro, an Australian Open quarterfinalist in 2009 and 2012, admits there is now more at stake. “Of course, I felt pressure to win these kind of matches against the Next Generation because I’m older,” he smiled.
There’s also the motivation of making up for lost time – as another returning superstar has shown.
In her first Melbourne Park match since her absence from AO2017, Maria Sharapova made it a statement win as she outclassed first-time opponent Tatjana Maria 6-1 6-4 in 78 minutes in the opening round.
“It felt really good,” Sharapova said. “You know, every point was really important to me today.”
On Thursday, the 30-year-old faces a seeded opponent in No.14 Anastasija Sevastova, who thwarted Sharapova’s 2017 US Open comeback with a three-set win in the fourth round.
Their next match, in Beijing, went the Russian’s way, but Sharapova acknowledges the hard-hitting Latvian – who holds two career titles and was a semifinalist in Brisbane – creates a difficult match.
“She’s an opponent that tests my patience, and I’m willing to be there and out there for as long as it takes,” she said.
Still, you sense that’s just as Sharapova likes it as she works to regain the form that took her to five Grand Slam titles, including the Australian Open in 2008.
“I want to be playing someone that has challenged me. I want to be playing someone that's on a hot streak and playing well. These are the players I should be playing and beating, as well,” she said of 27-year-old Sevastova.
“I expect that from myself. I want to put myself in that position to play against them no matter who it is in the past, and I look forward to doing in the future.”
Patient, yet eager to stamp her authority again, it’s a reminder of the tremendous competitive spirit that Sharapova – like del Potro – brings to the sport.
And while many things may have changed in their recent absences, the qualities that made them such superstars have not.