Wimbledon 2016: Del Potro scores emotional win over Wawrinka after 3-year absence

Juan Martin del Potro beats Stan Wawrinka in four sets to reach the third round of Wimbledon 2016

Four years is a long time on the tennis tour, but that was how long it was—indeed a shade longer—since two of the sport’s Grand Slam champions had faced one another in a main draw.

And what a place for No5 seed Stan Wawrinka and the unseeded ‘tower of Tandil’ Juan Martin del Potro to renew their professional relationship: Centre Court at Wimbledon.

That last meeting was on clay in 2012, but the first of their five meetings was eight years ago—also here at Wimbledon, in 2008. Wawrinka was 23 years old and had just broken into the top 10 having started the year at No36. Here was a new talent on a huge scale, with eye-catching power and a magnificent one-handed backhand.

The 6ft 6in Del Potro was still just a teenager, and playing Wawrinka in that second-round match ranked No62. But it was already clear that he would soon be making a name for himself near the top of the rankings.

From Wimbledon, the Argentine went on a tear of four back-to-back titles and 24 straight match-wins, all the way to the quarter-finals of the US Open. By the end of the year, he had broken the top 10 and joined the elite at the end-of-year Masters Cup, and the next year he beat Roger Federer in win the US Open.

The paths of Del Potro and Wawrinka would cross on clay twice during that break-through 2009, now with the Argentine in the ascendancy but with Wawrinka slipping towards the 20s as his form and confidence blew hot and cold.

How was it, then, that in this meeting so many years after their last, that it was Wawrinka residing in the top five and Del Potro with No165 by his name?

Well, Wawrinka took his career by the scruff of the neck early in 2013 by appointing Magnus Norman to his corner. Almost immediately he turned a two-year drought into winning ways, and in less than a year he had won his first Major in Australia, his first Masters in Monte-Carlo, made the first of two quarter-finals at Wimbledon, and qualified for the World Tour Finals as world No4.

So there must have been times when Del Potro could only watch and weep at the rise and rise not just of Wawrinka but of other players even younger than himself.

For he was two weeks short of his 21st birthday when he did what no man had done since Janaury 2005 and would not do again until Andy Murray in September 2012: deny a Grand Slam title to Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. But within months, he was hit by the first of a succession of wrist injuries, surgery and comebacks.

He missed most of 2010 following wrist surgery, made it back to No11 the next year, and in 2012 he won bronze at the Olympics and reached at No7. But the wrist troubles returned in Dubai 2014, followed by surgery, and then more surgery at the start of last year. From the beginning of 2014 to the end of 2015, he played just 14 matches.

So having achieved his best-ever run to the Wimbledon semis in 2013, he would not play here again until this week. Indeed this was his first Major anywhere in over two years.

It all meant that the long-awaited rematch between these two stars of the game came unseasonably early in the draw. For the winner, however, there was the very real prospect of a deep run with Murray, Federer and Djokovic sitting in different quarters.

Wawrinka’s intentions were made clear only a few weeks ago with the surprise appointment of former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek. This remains the only Major where the Swiss has yet to reach the semis, but as he said at Queen’s: “When I was young, it was very difficult on grass because I always needed time with my game. [But] I think the last few years, I played a really good game, and I feel that I can also play my best game on grass. But there is a lot of space for improvement.”

He was, then, favoured to repeat his 2008 victory here over Del Potro, and in the early goings, it looked as though he would do just that. The Argentine looked tight, his big weapons were not firing, while Wawrinka barely dropped a point on serve. The Swiss broke in the fourth, served for the set, fending off two break points, 6-3.

Wawrinka was not only serving well but coming to the net on a regular basis. There were, though, already signs that the Del Potro serve was warming up and that the new variety on his backhand was working well. Forced to play a lot more one-handed slice as he got to grips with his wrist injury, he now mixed it up with his full-blooded two-hander. He broke in the fourth, got the better of some huge forehand exchanges for 5-3, and served out the set, 6-3.

The match was warming up nicely, though each denied the other much rhythm. Four breaks in a row, as much down to errors as winners, began an edgy third set, but then the love holds kicked in and they headed to a tie-break. There, it proved to be the serving that made the difference, with Del Potro crushing down some bullets and Wawrinka double faulting for 2-6. A Swiss forehand long, and the Argentine had the lead, 7-6(2).

As Del Potro grew more confident, his movement improved and every element of his game followed. Wawrinka fought off the break in the sixth but lost a backhand exchange and his serve in the eighth, and Del Potro served out the match in style, 6-3.

The Argentine is a much loved player, a gentle bear of a man, and it was clear that the Wimbledon faithful was only too aware of the struggles he had faced to get back to the tournament. They cheered him to the rafters, and he afterwards admitted that he was still shaking with emotion.

“Feels an amazing sensation for me at the moment, I couldn’t expect this victory today. I really enjoyed the crowd, was so happy on court, but in the end I beat him…

“After my third surgery, I’m trying to play tennis again, like a third career in my short life. My hands are shaking, because it is a great sensation for me… Now I’m in the third round for first time in three years.”

There he will play one of the new young faces on the tour, 22-year-old Lucas Pouille, who had a breakthrough run on clay this year to earn his first seeding at a Major, No32. Don’t be surprised, though, if a very happy Del Potro does not stop at the third round.

Also in this half of the draw, No10 seed Tomas Berdych made light work of Benjamin Becker, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, and No12 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Juan Monaco, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3.

MORE: Del Potro: From ‘really sad’ to ‘so glad’ to be back on grass

Alan Shearer (Photo: BBC Sport / Screengrab)
‘Just too good’: Alan Shearer heaps praise on Chelsea FC trio
Paul Merson
Paul Merson: Harry Kane would be 'perfect' for Man United
Michael Owen
Michael Owen states his prediction for Chelsea FC v FC Porto
Roy Keane
Roy Keane raves about ‘outstanding’ Man United star after Tottenham showing
Owen Hargreaves
Owen Hargreaves makes claim about Christian Pulisic at Chelsea FC
Alan Shearer (Photo: BBC Sport / Screengrab)
‘Just too good’: Alan Shearer heaps praise on Chelsea FC trio
Paul Merson
Paul Merson: Harry Kane would be 'perfect' for Man United
Michael Owen
Michael Owen states his prediction for Chelsea FC v FC Porto
Roy Keane
Roy Keane raves about ‘outstanding’ Man United star after Tottenham showing
Owen Hargreaves
Owen Hargreaves makes claim about Christian Pulisic at Chelsea FC
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature