LONDON, GREAT BRITAIN — Juan Martin del Potro has been so unlucky with draws since his return from injury, that every time a new draw comes out, he automatically looks for the names ‘Novak Djokovic’ or ‘Roger Federer’, expecting to find them in his path early on.
The Argentine ex-world No4 has managed to rise from outside the top-1000 at the start of 2016, to his current ranking of 32 in the world, after he recovered from triple-wrist surgery and a lengthy absence. But he is yet to reach his former heights and difficult draws have not helped his situation.
The 28-year-old opens his Wimbledon campaign against talented Aussie youngster Thanasi Kokkinakis, who like Del Potro has had a long battle with injuries, but is on the comeback trail and is coming off an impressive upset over last year’s runner-up Milos Raonic at the Queen’s Club less than two weeks ago.
Should Del Potro survive Kokkinakis, he could face three-time champion Djokovic in the third round. It would be their fourth meeting of the year.
“When I look at the draw I try to find Roger or Djokovic and see who’s going to be my opponent. Yes, (Novak seems to be always in my section of the draw). Maybe he missed me when I was out,” joked Del Potro.
“No, but the only way to improve this situation is improving my ranking and that’s taking time. But anyway it’s a pleasure for me if I have to play against the top guys.”
Last year’s Wimbledon was Del Potro’s first Grand Slam appearance in over two years and he reached the third round, upsetting Stan Wawrinka in round two, before falling to Lucas Pouille.
Del Potro has lived through unbelievable experiences at the All England Club. From that epic five-setter he lost to Djokovic in the 2013 semi-finals, to his historic marathon against Federer in the London 2012 Olympics before he clinched the bronze medal with victory over Djokovic.
He acknowledges Wimbledon has a special place in his heart.
“First, because I feel how the people like to watch me playing here. I played many times against Andy (Murray) and when we were young we fought all the time and now we have a great relationship and we played great battles at the Olympics and Davis Cup,” said Del Potro.
“People like it when two tough guys play good matches. Also I won the bronze medal in the Olympics (in London 2012), and played the longest match in the Olympics against Roger in this stadium and that makes me a very special guy when I get into this court.”
And while Del Potro loves the tournament and has had much success here, he admits their special grass seeding formula that seeds players based on their previous results on the surface, can often result in unfortunate scenarios.
“This is how it’s always been in this tournament. But this time the changes have had greater consequences,” Del Potro said when asked about the special seedings.
“I don’t know if there was a controversy or if someone complained. But Wawrinka is a well-deserved world No3 and to move him out of the top four seeds for him is a big difference. Staying in the top four seeds more or less is the same but going to No5 is a significant change. Wawrinka is a well-deserved No3 and I suppose this must have angered him.
“Another consequential change is (Gilles) Muller who went from 25 to 16. And if you take this example, I believe that Feliciano Lopez did not get bumped high enough in the seedings.
“Feliciano won Queens and is outside the top 16 seeds even though he’s one of the best players on grass. I don’t know what criteria they follow for their seeding formula but we have to respect it and it’s a tournament with clear rules. But some players can feel prejudiced against by these rules.”
Del Potro is still bothered by a groin injury he had struggled with during the clay season but he says he is managing the pain and is not risking any further damage by playing Wimbledon.
He says it’s the same groin pain that forced him to skip the entire grass season in 2011 and it is a result of the intensity of his 2016 season, in which he won an Olympic silver medal and Davis Cup with Argentina.
Del Potro hasn’t played since Roland Garros, pulling out of Queens and s-Hertogenbosch because of the groin problem. Before the French Open, he didn’t play a full clay season because of the death of his grandfather. He hopes to finally play a full schedule for the rest of the year.
“It has been a tough year for me, but I’m looking forward to playing the whole hard-court season in America, and the indoor tournaments, because I like to play there. And I’m supposed to go to Asia, so if I’m in good shape, I’d like to play maybe 10 more tournaments this year,” he said.
There are four players who could end Wimbledon as world No1 – Murray, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka – which is the most competitive it’s been at the top in quite a while.
Del Potro was once competing for high positions in the rankings, and even though he is No32 at the moment, does he find it exciting to see how it all turns out?
“No, I don’t have any idea about that. But I think Roger, Rafa and the top guys are playing to keep making history in this sport and nobody cares if Roger is 5 in the world or No1 in the world. Maybe for him it’s important but for us and for tennis fans it doesn’t matter. The people want to see him win the Wimbledon trophy, as Rafa, Novak, Andy too and it’s going to be interesting to watch,” he replied.
Looking ahead to his match-up with Kokkinakis, he added: “I saw his game against Raonic in Queens and he played really well. He serves very good, he’s an Australian guy and all Australians know about playing on grass courts. It’s going to be a tough match for me, as all my year, I had a tough draw in all tournaments but I’m confident with my level, with my game, and I’ll try to hit hard the ball and try to win.”