French Open 2011: Djokovic beats Del Potro over two days
This third-round showdown, split over two days, may be overshadowed by what follows: Djokovic v Gasquet
It was the day that the seeds started to meet each other in the heavyweight encounters of the French Open. And the headliner on first Friday featured two of the game’s biggest names in a match that had leapt off the page as soon as the draw was made.
Juan Martin del Potro confirmed only the week before Roland Garros that the hip injury sustained in Madrid was healed enough to play but he was still seeded way down at 25 due to more than a year of injury problems.
He therefore found himself drawn against the most challenging of opponents, Novak Djokovic, before the first week done.
Since the start of 2011, the Argentine had built up a 27-6 win-loss record, had won two titles -including one on the clay of Estoril -and had beaten Marin Cilic and Mikhail Youzhny in Madrid before he was forced to withdraw.
The Djokovic story, however, has been a drama in its own right. Putting aside that he had won all three of his previous meetings against Del Potro, he has put together one of the finest ever runs in the tennis record books.
Another win against Del Potro would take him to 42 on the bounce: the equal of John McEnroe’s 1984 run. Should he win at Roland Garros, Djokovic would equal the longest ever men’s run -46 -of Guillermo Vilas and, incidentally, take the No1 ranking.
So this particular drama between the only two active players to break the Federer-Nadal Grand Slam duopoly, needed nothing to lift it.
But when the schedule was announced, the whispers began. Philipp Chatrier offered the prospect of several close-fought matches, not least the one between two power-houses, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka. And as anticipated, it turned into a thriller of a five-setter that forced the schedulers to make a late change to the order of play.
With Richard Gasquet leaving Suzanne Lenglen the winner over Thomaz Bellucci, the fans on Roland Garros’s second court could not believe their luck when the match of the day was moved to their arena.
The fans on Philipp Chatrier could not believe it either and bee-lined for the new venue as soon as Wawrinka took his victory, but Del Potro and Djokovic were already at it hammer-and-tongs.
The boos began to reverberate around Roland Garros and, with Djokovic finding his rhythm to power through the first set, the boos changed to roars outside Suzanne Lenglen as fans were barred from entering a half-empty court.
Temperatures continued to rise. Some hot tennis from Djokovic took a break of serve and the first set but he too began to seek an explanation of the hubbub.
Eventually, fans were allowed to filter in but most had already missed out on the resurgence of Del Potro in the second set. Using his huge height and strength to power winners from the baseline, the Argentine was making this a battle royal and those fortunate enough to be inside began to cheer every breathtaking shot.
Del Potro, in a barrage of bullet-loud hitting, broke Djokovic and, despite facing break points back, served to hold a 4-1 lead. At 5-3, the Argentine’s nerves seemed to take hold and he went 15-40 down, but he levelled with a huge ace and served out with another.
It was the first set he had ever taken from Djokovic but, with the gloom descending, he was prevented from building on his momentum. The match was halted at 9.15, all square, to be concluded on Saturday afternoon.
At the match’s resumption -at almost 3 in Paris -the crowd was rather more at ease with things, though undoubtedly chuffed to find this bonus match sandwiched into the Saturday action.
It looked, too, as though it may overshadow the drama of Andy Murray’s near exit with injury in his own third-round contest against a bullish Michael Berrer.
The Scot’s rise from the red dust and subsequent onslaught to the finish line certainly brought a buzz of approval from the French stadium, but so did the arrival of Djokovic and Del Potro.
Both men took time to settle into the blazing hitting that had set Suzanne Lenglen alight the night before, but Djokovic burst into life on his third service game when facing two break points. He saved both and served out for a 3-2 lead.
That seemed to lift his inhibitions against an opponent still not up to speed in the cool afternoon. He broke Del Potro for a 5-2 lead and served out for a two sets to one advantage, 6-3, with 12 winners on the stats sheet compared with Del Potro’s three.
Djokovic was now flooded with confidence: He had his man on the run with an early break in the fourth to go 4-1. The Argentine won back a service break with a rare error from the Serb but that, too, was annulled by another break from Djokovic.
The Argentine could find no way to stem the flood of accurate, deep and persistent hitting from his opponent: In truth, he looked weary and worn down.
Djokovic took the match with the most exquisite of drop shots from a drive deep behind his baseline: a combination of touch, vision and confidence that has come to epitomise the Serb’s tennis this season.
He took the set, 6-2, with relative ease to set up what may be another tricky challenge. It will come in the shape of one of three Frenchmen sending a frisson around Roland Garros ahead of the fourth round: Gasquet.
This charismatic 24-year-old may be playing his best tennis since he was a teenager. He will face the record-breaking Djokovic back on Philipp Chatrier, safely scheduled in the mid-afternoon, and it’s set to be warm and dry.
Perhaps, then, this will be the match that really sets Paris alight.