ROLAND GARROS – If he had his two-handed backhand of old, Juan Martin del Potro knows that he could have given No. 1 seed Andy Murray a better battle in their third-round match at the French Open Saturday.
But it’s not quite there – yet. So given what he has to work with, his first Roland Garros in five years went well on the whole, despite the 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 defeat.
“The first two sets were really tight, and it was only few points for Andy, and he won both sets. But I felt playing so good for the two hours and a half, and then I was enjoying the match. The crowd was enjoying the match, too. And I think we made a great show for them,” del Potro said. “But in the end, Andy played better in the specific moments, and he won.”
The first set took an hour and 25 minutes. Del Potro had his chances.
“When you play the best players, they give you very, very few occasions, opportunities. When they do, you can’t make a double fault like I did today. There was this other point. I had a set point. And I was going to win the set, right? Instead of being aggressive, I didn’t really do much. At that point, he won. See? That’s what happened,” del Potro said. “But beyond my tennis and so on, I need to improve my backhand. Andy is one of the smartest guys on the circuit, and he knew what my weak point was. Today, on clay, if I had been in slightly better conditions and with a better backhand, it would have been more difficult for him.”
At the end of the first set, after a ball on set point against him was (correctly) called out, del Potro leaned on the net post for most of the set break.
It’s tough to accept when you put nearly an hour and a half into something, have your chances, and know you probably lost your best opportunity at beating a world No. 1. Because slogging away for another three hours-plus to win three sets against an opponent who’s excellent at slogging away for three hours-plus, on a damp, slow day, is a daunting prospect.
Murray fully realized the significance.
“Obviously his reaction at the end of the first set, you know, he was pretty disappointed. He had some opportunities to close it out, and he served a double fault in the tiebreak on one of the set points. It was an important first set for a number of reasons, but the conditions today were very heavy and tough, not easy to come back from,” he said.
Chess match won by Murray
When two premium players face each other, each knows what the other is going to do. The chess match comes down to who executes it better.
The other aspect – and this is far more true on the men’s side than the women’s side – is that both players often see the chess game the same way.
Del Potro: “I felt I was playing well. I could feel I was hurting him mentally. But it still was extremely complicated, because he was starting to return the balls better. My serve was not hurting him as much anymore later into the match. He was a real No. 1.”
Murray: “I was starting to play a bit better towards the end of the set. I was starting to get a better read on the returns and I wanted to come out and make it really tough for him beginning of that second set.”
Del Potro had been feeling it in his back and shoulder before the tournament even began. So to get to the third round was not so bad, after all.
So-so clay season – but at least a season
This was to have been the Argentine’s first full clay-court season in five years. But after his first win in Estoril in early May, he withdrew and returned home after his grandfather died. He missed Madrid the following week as well.
To add to his struggles, del Potro sure hasn’t had much draw luck. His ranking is finally high enough to get him seeded, but in terms of Grand Slams he’s still slotted to get a top-8 seed in the third round. “If I want to change that, I need to improve my ranking; it’s the only solutions to get better draws,” he said.
He should already probably be ranked higher. But some of his best results haven’t counted. No points are awarded at the Olympics, where he had a great tournament last summer in Rio. And no points are awarded for Davis Cup, where Argentina won it all in 2016.
Del Potro faced Novak Djokovic, a last-minute wild card, in the second round in Acapulco in March. He faced him again shortly thereafter in his second match at Indian Wells. And then, he drew Roger Federer for his second match in Miami. With a little better draw luck, del Potro might have been in the top 16 by now.
He plans to play two warmups leading up to Wimbledon: ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands in 10 days and Queens’s Club the week after that.
(Screenshots from FranceTV)