Juan Martin del Potro is back, and Novak Djokovic is gone.
The top-ranked Djokovic was swept out of the singles tournament at the Olympics in the first round on Sunday by the 2009 US Open champion 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) in a result that left both players sobbing.
After three left wrist surgeries that had him contemplating retirement from tennis, del Potro is ranked 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, however, that clinched victory on his second match point. The two shared a long embrace at the net, with Djokovic’s legacy still missing an Olympic gold medal. He’ll be 33 in 2020.
These players faced off for bronze in London four years ago, with del Potro winning. But when he arrived at Wimbledon in June, he hadn’t appeared at a Major in 2½ years. He would upset fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka in the second round there, and even though a fatigued del Potro lost his next match, it was 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 US 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. 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.
Del Potro hit 41 winners Sunday, 29 on his forehand. Djokovic, a 12-time Major champion, had more unforced errors than winners: 32-26.
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.
Del Potro’s Sunday did not start off so auspiciously - he was stuck in an elevator at the Olympic Village for 40 minutes before Argentine handball players freed him.
“It’s very difficult because del Potro has a very important match,” one of his rescuers, Gonzalo Carou, said later.
A hugely difficult match from both del Potro and Djokovic’s perspectives --- each had the misfortune of drawing each other in the first round.
White tape peeking out from under the red sweat band on his injured left wrist, Rafael Nadal was back in action on Sunday, playing his first match in two-and-half months.
He was back at an Olympics for the first time in eight years.
He was not, Nadal insisted after a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Argentina’s Federico Delbonis. And he will not, he also insisted, discuss the problematic tendon sheath in his racket-wielding arm for the rest of the event.
“My wrist is not perfect. My wrist needs more time,” the Spaniard said. “If it was a ‘normal’ tournament on the circuit, I wouldn’t be here. My wrist is not perfect. It isn’t 100 percent.”
Nadal won a gold medal in singles at the 2008 Beijing Games, but he missed the 2012 London Olympics because of a knee injury that also forced him out of the US Open later that season.
“There’s only one chance every four years to experience an Olympic Games. It’s something unforgettable,” said Nadal, who carried Spain’s flag during the opening ceremony.
“I missed the last one in London, so I didn’t want to miss this one.”
Defending champions Andy Murray and Serena Williams defied high winds to breeze into the Olympic tennis second round Sunday as organisers were blasted for allowing play in conditions described as “ugly”.
Wimbledon champion Murray, the second seed, clinched an eighth win in eight meetings against Serbia’s Viktor Troicki, 6-3, 6-2.
Murray, playing for the first time since securing his second career All England Club title four weeks ago, next faces Argentina’s Juan Monaco, one of his closest friends on tour.
“I was a little bit nervous at the start. I haven’t played on a hard court for a while and the conditions weren’t easy,” said 29-year-old Murray, as light drizzle began to fall.
“But I did well. It was a good start.”
Williams, the 34-year-old world No 1, can take her gold medal count to six if she repeats as Olympic singles and doubles champion.
She got her campaign off to the perfect start, defeating Australia’s Daria Gavrilova 6-4, 6-2.
Williams, sporting a patriotic Stars and Stripes hair band on centre court, will face either Sweden’s Johanna Larsson or Alize Cornet of France.
In the first big surprise of the Olympic tennis tournament, Venus and Serena Williams were upset 6-3, 6-4, in doubles on Sunday by the Czech team of Barbora Strycova and Lucie Safarova.
The loss, which came in the first round, was the Williams sisters’ first in 16 matches as a team in Olympic competition. They won the doubles gold medal in 2000, 2008 and 2012, and their surprise defeat came against a Czech team that had never won a match together.
Strycova was not even originally scheduled to play doubles with Safarova in Rio but they joined forces after Karolina Pliskova withdrew from the games. Strycova and Safarova had lost their only previous match together, playing in the Fed Cup for the Czech Republic, but both are experienced doubles players who have had success with other partners.
Safarova won the Australian Open and French Open titles in 2015 with American Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
On Sunday, she and Strycova held firm down the stretch. They broke Venus Williams at 4-4 in the second set, and Strycova then served out the victory.