The last time these two matched up, last August at the Rio Olympics, they delivered the best tennis storyline of 2016: Juan Martin del Potro, rising from the dead after two years of surgeries to both wrists, upsets a Novak Djokovic who’d then had a vice grip on the No. 1 spot for two whole years. This time around, the contrast was less stark. Djokovic’s grip has slackened; he’s still No. 2 in the world, but he’s no longer his world-beating self, and was playing his first event since getting bounced in the second round of the Australian Open. Delpo sits at No. 32, and continues to claw his way back up the rankings to a position that reflects his actual talents. (That’s the only reason we’re seeing this kind of premature marquee matchup in the second round of the Mexican Open.) Anyway, the tennis was good:
While Del Potro’s comeback has been heartening, you can still see the scars from his years of hurt and rehabilitation: just look at his depleted backhand. He used to have a respectable two-handed drive, but it’s a rare sight, getting rarer as a match wears on. By the last set, he was scraping out slices, lucky to hit one of every five backhands with any kind of pace. In fairness, his slice is looking as effective as it ever has—out of sheer necessity, obviously—and he finessed it down the line to win their best rally of the night.
Shit, that forehand does get old. It never fails to surprise me how quickly the ball flees Del Potro’s racket to land in some doomed spot deep in the opponent’s court. But as big as that forehand is, that alone won’t get him wins against his elite peers; he needs heat on both wings. Back at the U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka just loitered behind the baseline, biding his time and abusing Delpo’s backhand until he could find a good opening. In this match, Djokovic was less sustained in his attack on the backhand side, but it was still frustrating to watch Delpo cede all the ground he’d gained by slugging a few forehands in a row, simply because he had to float back a slice and let the point reset. You wonder whether that it’s a temporary measure as he regains strength in his wrist, or a permanent fact of his game from now on, a fixed point he’ll need to rebuild his game around. Here’s how his surgeon characterized the injury last year:
One of the things that he and I have talked about a lot was that there were some aspects of his swing that put a tremendous amount of pressure on his wrist ... And when he would prepare for a backhand, especially a topspin shot, he would dip his left upper extremity down and basically hyperextend his wrist to come up and actually make contact with the ball. And it was at that precise moment he had the pain, and for the longest time, it was a challenge, first of all, to figure out what was causing it. It took a couple of operations.
This makes it sound as if his old backhand swing was just anatomically untenable, and he’ll need to rethink it completely to avoid re-aggravating the wrist issue. That sort of adjustment in a stroke must take time, and based on his current play style, he’s in no rush to get that two-hander consistent again (assuming that’s even a real possibility). Considering his career longevity is at stake, you can’t blame him.
Down the stretch, though, it was his favorite forehand that let him down. Del Potro was up a break in the final set, serving at 4-3, but Djokovic broke back. Then Djokovic held serve at love, watching Delpo sputtered forehand errors, and broke one more time to cement the win. Djokovic goes on to play Nick Kyrgios tonight in the third round. Somehow, this is the first time those two will play one another, so that makes for appointment television.