The 6’6″ Del Potro returned to the game in January of 2015, played two tournaments, and then needed another surgery on the left wrist, finishing that season at No. 581. In 2016, he came back at Delray Beach, Florida after enduring a third surgery on that wrist. Although he managed to make it to the semifinals in Stuttgart before losing to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, Del Potro still seemed to be largely a depleted and compromised figure, a man searching to reassert himself in the upper levels of his sport.
In fact, as he walked onto the Centre Court today to confront No. 4 seed Stan Wawrinka in the second round, Del Potro had only scant knowledge of what he could do against the game’s finest players. He had played only one match against a top ten competitor since 2013, bowing against Tomas Berdych at Indian Wells earlier this year. He had been largely away from that league for a very long while. But the 27-year-old with the imposing physique and the stout heart recorded his biggest victory in what must have seemed like ages, coming from behind with quiet ferocity to oust Wawrinka 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3 in an intriguing battle of major champions,
Del Potro had celebrated a seminal moment in his career when he won the U.S. Open in 2009, halting Roger Federer in a tumultuous five set final. Wawrinka has taken two majors, defeating both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in capturing the 2014 Australian Open, eclipsing Federer and Djokovic during his spirited title run at Roland Garros last year. Wawrinka advanced to the penultimate round in Paris this year as he sought to defend his crown, but he was ousted by Andy Murray in four sets. Del Potro had bypassed Roland Garros to make certain he would be able to release his best work on the lawns, and that decision is looking awfully good right now in light of his commendable triumph over Wawrinka.
In the early stages of this contest, Wawrinka looked like the far better player. His serve was deadly accurate and deceptive. His ground game was essentially unerring. The Swiss was bearing down hard, competing purposefully, keeping Del Potro fundamentally off balance. Wawrinka was hardly letting Del Potro get a look at hitting forehands, peppering the backhand side of his adversary. That was wise strategy because the Argentine has been severely handicapped off that side both before and after his surgeries. Driving his two-hander with the pace he used to manufacture has been impossible. When he does try to hit through the backhand either flat or with topspin, his supply of power is very limited.
And so Del Potro goes to the one-handed slice most of the time, and, as a result, he has a much harder time than he did in days gone by of finding the openings to exploit his blockbuster forehand, a shot that defined his game when he was playing on his own terms. In those days, when he was striking the ball so much bigger off his backhand side, he would invariably find constant openings to blast forehands into open spaces, bewildering opponents in the process.
But during the first set of his clash with Wawrinka today, Del Potro was not preventing the Swiss from dictating far too frequently. Wawrinka was on top of the rallies from the outset. After serving a pair of love games on his way to a 2-1 lead, he broke a beleaguered Del Potro for 3-1. Wawrinka was mixing up his serve superbly, holding at 15 for 4-1. He held easily again for 5-2, at the cost of only one point, closing out that game with an ace.
Del Potro—dismayed though he surely was—did not despair. He held on for 3-5 at love. Wawrinka had won 16 of 18 points on serve at that juncture, but now he struggled in the ninth game, double faulting for 15-30, missing a forehand inside in that was born of tension. But Wawrinka stylishly worked his way out of that corner, winning four points in a row without missing a first serve, taking the set 6-3 with that flourish.
The Argentine, however, was finding his range, and the sliced backhand was becoming increasingly effective on the grass. The courts are slicker during the first week, and the bounces lower. These were conditions that began benefitting the big man, who hardly missed that shot. Wawrinka’s timing off his renowned one-handed topspin backhand was thrown off considerably. Had this match been played in the middle of the second week on hardened courts, Del Potro might have found himself at Wawrinka’s mercy in the crosscourt backhand exchanges, but on this particular day, under different circumstances, it was another story altogether.
Meanwhile, Del Potro was serving with immense power and conviction, particularly down the T in the deuce court. At 1-1 in the second set, he saved a break point with a 128 MPH first serve wide to the Wawrinka backhand in the ad court. It was un-returnable. Two more unanswerable first serves lifted Del Potro out of potential danger and into a 2-1 lead. Now Del Potro made his move. Wawrinka double faulted at break point down in the fourth game, enabling his opponent to establish a 3-1 lead. From 15-15 in the fifth game, Del Potro collected three points in a row, with an ace sandwiched between two service winners. He was ahead 4-1, and gathering strength.
Two games later, leading 4-2, Del Potro had three game points that eluded his grasp. But, after serving an ace, he came through on his fourth opportunity with a first serve setting up a stinging forehand that drew a backhand error from Wawrinka. It was 5-2 for the crowd favorite. He nearly sealed the set in the following game, reaching set point. But Wawrinka challenged an overrule from umpire Mohamed Lahyani, who called a backhand from the Swiss wide. The replay revealed that the ball was in. Wawrinka held on for 3-5. But Del Potro maintained both his poise and his precision off the ground and on serve. He held at 15 to make it one set all.
The third set commenced as unconventionally as possible. Each man had broken only once in the first two sets, but now there were four consecutive breaks, leaving the score locked at 2-2.Wawrinka altered that pattern significantly in the fifth game, closing out a hold at 15 with three aces in a row, all of them sent down the T. Del Potro rallied from 15-30 to secure three points in a row for 3-3. After Wawrinka served an impressive love game for 4-3, Del Potro raced to 40-0.Wawrinka got back to deuce, but Del Potro was unwavering here. He went to the two-hander in the next rally on consecutive shots. Despite not generating much pace either time, the change in strategy threw Wawrinka off guard. The Swiss missed a routine backhand crosscourt. Then Del Potro unleashed an inside out forehand with sufficient force to elicit a backhand slice long from Wawrinka. It was 4-4. Both men held easily through the next three games, until Del Potro served at 5-6.
He found himself at 30-30 in the crucial twelfth game, but a 131 MPH first serve down the T stymied Wawrinka, who had no chance on the return. Another excellent first serve—this one to the forehand side of the Swiss—was also too good. Del Potro had passed an important test. It was 6-6. The ensuing tie-break determined the outcome not only of the set, but probably the match. Wawrinka opened that sequence magnificently with a 131 MPH ace down the T, but Del Potro responded with two superb first serves of his own. Both were unstoppable. Wawrinka took the next point for 2-2, but would not win another in that critical tie-break.
Wawrinka missed an opening for a backhand down the line, directing that shot wide to give Del Potro the mini-break for 3-2. Del Potro followed with a thundering 127 MPH first serve to the backhand that Wawrinka could not handle. That made it 4-2 for the man from Argentina. He then used an explosive 129 MPH first serve to the backhand to set up a strong forehand approach. Wawrinka was rushed into a netted passing shot up the line. Trailing 2-5 now, Wawrinka double faulted, and then sprayed a forehand long. By seven points to two, Del Potro, who did not miss a first serve in that sequence, took the tie-break commandingly.
There was a brief glimmer of hope for Wawrinka at the start of the fourth set. Del Potro surged to 40-0 in the opening game but Wawrinka recovered for deuce as the Argentine uncharacteristically missed a pair of sliced backhands. But, once more, Del Potro refused to lose the plot. He cracked a heavy forehand crosscourt to coax an error from the No. 4 seed, and then approached off the backhand and forced Wawrinka into a forehand passing shot mistake to hold for 1-0.
That was an essential hold for Del Potro. Serving at 2-2, he dealt with some more mild pressure, handling the situation admirably. At 30-30, he approached off the forehand to the Wawrinka backhand, and the passing shot came back low. In exemplary fashion, Del Potro made an immaculate forehand drop volley winner. His expression and body language said it all: the man was thoroughly delighted with what had just happened. He took the next point to lead 3-2, and had two break points in the following game. But Wawrinka’s composure and execution here were remarkable. He saved the first break point with an ace and cancelled the second with a blazing topspin backhand winner down the line. He held on for 3-3.
And yet, Del Potro was unswerving. He held at 30 for 4-3. In the eighth game, Wawrinka double faulted for 15-30, drew level at 30-30, but then was guilty of an unforced error off the forehand. At 30-40, he erred off the backhand, driving a topspin shot wide off another telling backhand slice from Del Potro. Serving for the match, Del Potro opened with a 135 MPH ace down the T, attacked his way to 30-0, lost the next point, and then was fortunate when a miss-hit backhand landed accidentally short and hardly bounced. At 40-15, Wawrinka mistimed one last topspin backhand off a backhand slice from Del Potro, missing that shot wide. Victory had gone deservedly to Del Potro 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
What a joy it was to see this dignified man back in that form. To be sure, he was not performing with the mighty authority of 2009 or 2013. This was not the Del Potro of 2009, who upended Federer in New York after the Swiss Maestro served for a two sets to love lead at 5-4 in the second set, reaching 30-0 before losing his serve and, eventually, the set. Del Potro was devastatingly potent off the ground over the last two sets of that five set triumph. In 2013 on the Centre Court at the All England Club, Del Potro played stupendously in a five set semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic, blasting outright winners in that match which often seemed beyond the realm of the imagination.
The win over Wawrinka this year is simply a nice step in the right direction, a victory that could lead Del Potro back toward the territory he once inhabited when he was healthier. The hope here is that Del Potro realizes his goal of being back in peak form next year, when he believes he will have the capacity to go full throttle again on the two-handed backhand. But, for one long moment, perhaps for a day, Juan Martin Del Potro can celebrate his best victory since before the series of surgeries. He won in a fashion he never would have done in years gone by, releasing only five winners from the baseline, 20 fewer than Wawrinka. And yet, Del Potro had a total of 25 unforced errors, 23 less than the Swiss. That, too, was a new formula for a big hitter who prefers going for broke to playing percentage tennis.
It was an uplifting win in many ways for a popular individual who is reimagining what he could be, how he can succeed and where he can go. The fellow is only in the third round of Wimbledon after moving past Wawrinka, but, no matter what happens to him from here on in at this tournament, he surely knows that he has demonstrated both to himself and the world that beating a player of Wawrinka’s status might have lasting implications.