“It took me five years, three surgeries in my wrist to come back, five years to come back and live these exceptional moments once again. So it was very emotional.”
Those were Juan Martin del Potro’s words in his final press conference of the 2017 French Open after he bid adieu to the tournament with a straight-sets third round loss to Andy Murray on Saturday.
Playing his first Roland Garros since 2012, Del Potro walked off Court Philippe Chatrier to a roaring standing ovation – one the notoriously tough French crowd wouldn’t give to just anyone.
Whether he’s hugging a line judge mid-match, smoking a thunderous forehand winner past his opponent, shimmying on his bench to ‘Despacito’, crying on an Olympic podium, or comforting a devastated opponent through an injury-forced retirement, Del Potro has captured the hearts of tennis fans the world over and it’s hard to think of one player that is as universally loved as the tall Argentine.
While many stars of the game have legions of fans, Del Potro’s popularity transcends the typical idea of tennis fandom. You don’t just admire his game, you want to be his friend. He is relatable in his simplicity, and inspirational in his resilience.
If millions love Roger Federer for his portrayed image of perfection, millions love Del Potro for all his imperfections.
He doesn’t hide behind excuses and isn’t trying to gain anyone’s sympathy – even though he has it anyway.
“I need to improve my backhand. Andy is one of the smartest guys on the circuit, and he knew what my weak point was,” he said frankly on Saturday.
No embellishment, no nonsense.
The tennis court is full of exaggerated reactions. The fist pumps, the screams, the racquet smashes, the falling down to one’s knees… We all choose to buy it, enjoy it, and go along with it.
When Del Potro stood motionless hanging his head over the net after squandering a break lead and set points to lose an 84-minute first set to Murray, we all felt it – that deep frustration and disbelief.
Del Potro may have one of the scariest forehands in tennis, but his greatest weapon is arguably his ability to convey genuine emotion. That’s what it comes down to. That’s why it’s very hard to root against him.
A journalist asked him on Saturday how he can explain his popularity. “You seem to be this cool guy,” said the reporter.
“I just try to be myself all the time,” he replied. “I think all the people like my story, you know. I have been out for a long time. I’m trying to fix my wrist problem, and I never give up from that problems. Of course, everybody knows how my backhand is, if you compare with the old Del Potro. I’m running a lot during the whole matches.
“And I think that’s what the people like from me. I try just to be myself. I like to be cool on tour, as well,” he added with a smile. “But that’s me.”
Murray noted before their match that Del Potro has had some tough draws this season, bumping into the top guys early on at almost every tournament. I asked Del Potro how hard or easy it is for him to accept this kind of draws until he manages to get his ranking up.
He said: “I’m not having lucky with the draws, but if I want to change that, I need to improve my ranking, is the only solutions to get better draws.
“But this could take more time at least if I’m playing good tennis. Also, last year I made finals at the Olympics. Then I won the Davis Cup, and I don’t get any points for that. But I need to play better on the ATP Tour, trying to get more points and keep going up in the ranking.”
You wonder when his luck will finally turn.
The final point of that brutal first set against Murray warranted umpire Carlos Bernardes to leave his chair and go check the sideline to see if Del Potro’s shot was indeed out. Del Potro looked pleadingly, hoping it was in. Bernardes got the line judge to help him check it as well. They both called it out.
Is Del Potro convinced it was the right call?
“Yeah, yeah. The ball was out,” he said with an ironic smile.
He made us all laugh, despite it being one of his most frustrating moments. Classic, DelPo!
Rain suspended most of the matches on day 7, so here are quick highlights from the little action we saw on Saturday at Roland Garros…
1 — The match between Kei Nishikori and Chung Hyeon is the first Roland Garros third round between two Asian players.
3 — times Simona Halep has now made the Roland Garros fourth round in eight appearances.
8 — times Murray has now reach the fourth round at Roland Garros in 10 appearances.
14 — players aged 30 or over have reached the third round in the men’s draw.
100 — match wins on clay Marin Cilic now has.
“His grunt, it’s a very manly, like a very manly grunt.”
— Andy Murray’s analysis of his third round match went as far as him describing Del Potro’s grunt
“I don’t know why I was doing it. Why does it matter? What’s the big deal? I don’t get it. If I say something and you guys ask me what I was saying, if I say nothing, you ask me why I don’t say anything (smiling). What do you want me to do? What do you want me to say? It’s irrelevant.”
— Murray is officially fed up of answering questions about the minute details of his on-court behaviour. We don’t blame him…
“I remember I got a question when I lost I think to Zvonareva, at the time she was 2. How does it feel to have a disappointing loss to someone who is lower ranked than you? I was, like, she’s No2 in the world. It’s not like I lost to someone who is bad.”
— Caroline Wozniacki recalls the pressures she felt when she was No1 in the world.
The match hasn’t finished yet but rain suspended play with 67th-ranked Chung Hyeon launching a decent comeback against world No9 Kei Nishikori. After losing the first two sets, Chung was rallying back and the match stopped with the score locked at 5-7, 4-6, 7-6(4), 3-0. It would be a massive upset if Chung can pull this off.
jsuis mort, cuevas il a voulu faire le kéké ..... pic.twitter.com/HfmRtSm2y9— Philou (@philousports) June 3, 2017
Andy Murray can start to look ahead at the French Open after defusing the power game of Juan Martin del Potro to reach the fourth round.
The world No1 has been searching for top form all season and finally found something close to it on a cool, grey day at Roland Garros. Murray saved four set points to win a titanic opener lasting 84 minutes and was in control thereafter in a 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 victory.
It looked a nightmare draw against a player falsely low in the rankings as he continues to work his way back up after wrist problems that almost ended his career. The importance of the first set was illustrated by the 45 seconds Del Potro spent leaning over the net with head in hands after his final forehand curled just wide.
Murray arrived in Paris unsure what to expect of himself after a poor run of form on clay but his prospects for matching last year’s run to the final suddenly look a lot brighter.
The 30-year-old said: “It was obviously an important win for me and a big match because Juan, when he’s playing well, is one of the best players in the world. To be playing him this early on in the slam is obviously not easy, but it can be a very positive thing. You play someone that good, maybe you’re a little bit more switched on.
“It was a good one for me to get through and each set I played better, I started to figure things out again during the match. Maybe I didn’t start the best, but I made some changes in the match tactically. That’s very positive, because I wasn’t doing that for the last few tournaments and the last couple of matches I have done it, and totally turned the matches around.
“I didn’t come here with the mindset that I’m definitely going to go a long way here. I was going to try and just get through the first round and hopefully feel better each day. That’s been the case so far.
“There were things I did today that, if I can do them consistently well over the next week or so, then I could do really well. But I also know where I have come from, even just 10 days or so ago. I was not playing well. So I need to respect that and work hard in practice and concentrate.”
Del Potro’s forehand, accompanied by what Murray described as a “very manly” grunt, is one of the great weapons in tennis today. When he properly unloads, gasps from the crowd are sure to follow, and it put the Argentinian in control of the first set.
Murray saved a set point at 4-5 and then another in a memorable 10th game, missing a sitter forehand before finally breaking back.
The tiebreak was a mini-match in itself, with Murray opening up a 6-4 lead, missing both set points then facing another after Del Potro pulled off a miracle forehand winner off a Murray pass.
But a double fault from the Argentinian made it 7-7 and it was Murray who took his third set point when Del Potro’s forehand landed just wide.
Explaining his reaction, Del Potro said: “Too much frustration. I couldn’t believe that I lost that set, because I had many opportunities to win. I was playing great, great points during the whole first set.”
He might have been 3-0 down in the second set but fought to limit Murray’s advantage to one break and then got his reward when he levelled at 5-5.
Del Potro’s refusal to go away was a defining feature of last year’s memorable Olympic final between the pair, but this time the Argentinian’s resistance proved to be fleeting. Murray broke serve again immediately and, with Del Potro flagging, raced through the fourth set to set up a last-16 clash against either John Isner or young Russian Karen Khachanov.
“Obviously the first set was very important,” said Murray. “The conditions today were very slow and heavy, so coming from behind in those conditions can be difficult, because it feels like you have to work very hard for every point.
“Obviously his reaction at the end of the first set, he was pretty disappointed. He had some opportunities to close it out.”
Asked if he rated it his best performance of the season, Murray said: “I played some good matches at the beginning of the year.
“But definitely during the clay court season, the second and third sets were the best I have played for sure.”
Del Potro came into the match nursing a groin injury, and was a doubt for the tournament because of shoulder and back problems, but he credited Murray for turning the match around.
He said: “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 service was not hurting him as much any more later into the match. He was a real number one.
“He’s very smart on court. He has all the shots but also he’s great mentally. I know how important this tournament is for him. I wish him all the best and hopefully he can go far.”
Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet will face off in an all-French grudge match in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
Garcia and Cornet joined Kristina Mladenovic to make it three French women into the last 16, and they are guaranteed at least one quarter-finalist.
But there will be no love lost when Garcia and Cornet square off on Monday – at least from Garcia’s side. Asked if they might have a coffee together before the match, Garcia, who is into the second week of a Slam for the first time in her career, said: “No, not before, and probably not after.”
The bad feeling stems from France’s Fed Cup play-off against Spain in April. Having said she did not want to play in the international competition this year, Garcia was named in the team by Yannick Noah.
She pulled out injured but doubts were publicly raised about the validity of her injury and it was not until a French federation doctor confirmed she could not play that her decision was accepted. Cornet and team-mates Mladenovic and Pauline Parmentier all sent a tweet at the same time saying “LOL”, leaving Garcia upset.
The 23-year-old said: “I received a text message but no excuses. She said she was still standing behind her tweets, so I consider that it doesn’t mean anything.”
There was already tension between Garcia and Mladenovic after Garcia ended a very successful doubles partnership – they won the French Open together last year – to focus on her singles.
Mladenovic responded with an interview in which she compared Garcia’s educational record unfavourably with her own and said her former partner was controlled by her father.
Reaching the fourth round of a grand slam for the first time is therefore a much-needed boost for Garcia, who battled past Hsieh Su-wei 6-4, 4-6, 9-7.
She said: “A lot of positive things have happened this week. More so than over the past weeks. It’s been a long journey. I have learned a great deal of things about myself. The problem with my back allowed me to look at myself a little differently. A lot of other things happened beyond sports, as well.
“I came to the French Open with a firm commitment. The commitment is to not worry too much about the others. Instead I want to focus on myself and on my game. It feels great. But it’s a long journey and it’s not over yet.”
Cornet, who defeated Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-1, hopes the relationship with Garcia can be repaired.
She said: “I think that the relationship is not very good. I think she may have a grudge against us, so she’s not ready to talk with me. But one day I hope that she will tell me, ‘Let’s discuss’. And I’m patient. I understand that the whole story has upset her.”
Radwanska became the fourth top-10 seed to exit the tournament but title favourite Simona Halep is still going strong.
The third seed recovered from 5-3 down in the second set to beat Daria Kasatkina 6-0, 7-5.
Halep, the runner-up to Maria Sharapova in 2014, said: “It was a good match. I think I played really well the whole match.
“It’s a very nice feeling to be again in the second week. I played well, and the most important thing is that I’m playing better match by match. It gives me confidence for the next week, and also nerves, but better nerves this time.
“I’m not feeling pressure and I’m not feeling that I’m favourite. I just have confidence that I have my chance. I have the game to play until the end.”
Caroline Wozniacki and Cici Bellis were unable to complete their match on Friday night and it was the Dane who eventually came through 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, to set up a fourth round against Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Carla Suarez Navarro also progressed with victory over Elena Vesnina but the other matches were cancelled for the day because of rain.
* From PA