The big Argentine, who stands at No3 in the Race to London, was assured of qualification if he reached the final of the ATP500 in Beijing this week, but after Marin Cilic lost in the first round in Tokyo, del Potro had only to make the quarter-finals.
In his way was another 6ft6in powerhouse, the 22-year-old Russian Karen Khachanov—in their third meeting of the year. And it turned into a high-quality, big-hitting contest packed with an hour and 40 minutes of bold, attacking tennis.
Del Potro looked in control of things early in the first set with a quick break, and closed it out, 6-4. He then looked to seal the match with a timely break in the second: He would serve for the win, 6-5.
But Khachanov has a game reminiscent of Del Potro’s own firepower and variety, and the Russian, after facing match point, broke back to force a tie-break. He made the first error, however, playing a drop-shot to the deceptively fast Argentine, who raced in for the pass. Del Potro never looked back, closing out the match, 7-6(4), to claim a tour-leading 34 wins on hard courts this season.
And it took him not only to the quarters in Beijing but to London in November, del Potro’s first time among the elite eight since 2013 and a full decade since he broke through the ranks to play the then Masters Cup in Shanghai in 2008, age just 20.
It has been a long time coming: Del Potro has endured one of tennis’s most injury-blighted careers since winning the US Open in 2009, and worked his way back from the depths of the rankings time and again following repeated wrist surgeries.
This time last year, he was ranked 24 after making his latest comeback. This year, he reached a career-high No3 in August after winning his first Masters title in Indian Wells and making impressive runs to the semis at Roland Garros and Miami, the quarters at Wimbledon, and the final of the US Open.
He may have turned 30 last month, but the Argentine looks as fit, strong and fast as at any time in his career: Perhaps he could even end 2018 with one more ‘first’ ticked off on his resume. At his fifth time of asking, can he win his first ATP Finals trophy?
But other London contenders also continued their push for qualification in Asia.
Kei Nishikori has won his home tournament in Tokyo twice, and reached the quarter-finals by beating Benoit Paire, 6-3, 7-5. He is currently just outside the top eight at No10, and could yet face two more men eager to up their London campaign.
Kevin Anderson, in eighth place, is targeting his first London qualification after his own best ever season, and he came through a tough three-set test to reach the second round.
Meanwhile the young Greek star, Stefanos Tsitsipas, will face fellow young talent, Alex de Minaur, to set a Nishikori showdown in the quarters. Tsitsipas is currently No14 in the Race, but the Tokyo title could edge him to No11.
Milos Raonic also reached to the quarters in Tokyo and No12 in the Race, beating qualifier Yosuke Watanuki. Things get a lot tougher now, however, with Daniil Medvedev next up. Beyond that, 19-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov played and beat his childhood hero, Stan Wawrinka, in three compelling sets of explosive tennis. He cannot make London this year, but 2019? Very possibly.
1. Rafael Nadal, 7,480 (absent Asian swing) Q
2. Novak Djokovic, 6,445 (Shanghai) Q
3. Juan Martin del Potro, 5,000 (Beijing QF, Shanghai) Q
4. Roger Federer, 4,800 (Shanghai) Q*
5. Alexander Zverev, 4,410 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)
6. Marin Cilic, 3,815 (lost R1 Tokyo, Shanghai)
7. Dominic Thiem, 3,525 (Shanghai)
8. Kevin Anderson, 3,495 (Tokyo R2, Shanghai)
9. John Isner, 2,930 (absent Asian swing)
10. Kei Nishikori, 2,610 (Tokyo QF, Shanghai)
11. Fabio Fognini, 2,045 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)
[David Goffin has withdrawn from rest of season]
12. Milos Raonic, 1,800 (Tokyo QF, Shanghai)
13. Stefanos Tsitsipas 1,782 (Tokyo R2, Shanghai)
14. Grigor Dimitrov, 1,745 (lost R2 Beijing, Shanghai)
15. Pablo Carreno Busta, 1,730 (Shanghai)
16. Marco Cecchinato, 1,719 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)
17. Borna Coric, 1,700 (lost R1 Beijing, Shanghai)
18. Diego Schwartzman, 1,690 (lost R1 Tokyo, Shanghai)
19. Kyle Edmund, 1,675 (Beijing QF, Shanghai)
*The top seven players in the ATP Race to London on 5 November (the day after the final tournament, the Paris Masters) qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals. If there is one current-year Major champion ranked eighth to 20 in the Race, he qualifies in eighth place.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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