Wimbledon 2017: Del Potro battles past Kokkinakis to set Gulbis contest, Djokovic over the horizon
Juan Martin del Potro is through to the second round of Wimbledon after beating Thanasi Kokkinakis in his opener
For a man who won his first Major almost eight years ago, Juan Martin del Potro does not have a huge tally of matches in those long legs. And as he took to the Wimbledon courts for the first time this year, he was contesting just his 50th ever grass-court match.
He was, of course, only 20 when he beat the five-time back-to-back champion Roger Federer in a scintillating four-hour five-setter, and with a quarter-final run in Australia and a semi run at Roland Garros—where again he took Federer to five sets, but lost—the world seemed to be the powerful del Potro’s oyster.
Yet now age 28, he was playing in only his 31st Major, only his eighth at Wimbledon. And the reason is simple: his fallible wrists.
Three times the Argentine has undergone surgery, and that forced him to miss most of 2010 and 2014, he played only four matches in 2015, missed a long swathe of 2016, and bypassed this year’s Australian Open, too.
Yet he was not without great matches on this turf: As well as a memorable five-set semi against Novak Djokovic in 2013, he played an equally memorable four-and-a-half-hour silver-medal match against Federer here in 2012. He went on to win bronze—against Djokovic.
But this year was a slow start again following an emotional run to Argentina’s first Davis Cup victory at the end of last November. So del Potro arrived at Wimbledon having played only 20 matches, the best of them coming on the clay of Rome. And he found himself pitched against one of the brightest of the young players to arrive on the scene in recent years.
But if there was one man who del Potro might relate to it was Thanasi Kokkinakis. A runner-up at both the Australian and US Open junior tournaments, the talented Australian twice made the second round at his home Major while still a teenager, and the third round of Roland Garros’s main draw as a wild card at just turned 20. But then Kokkinakis had to undergo shoulder surgery at the end of 2015, and played just one singles match before this spring: a loss at the Rio Olympic.
Even his efforts in winning his first doubles title at the start of the year ended in tears with an abdominal strain. Using a protected ranking, Kokkinakis at last scored a win at s-Hertogenbosch, and another at Queen’s. Now, though, he faced a big challenge indeed.
Del Potro came out firing big, and got a quick break to lead 3-0, an advantage he held through to the first set’s conclusion, 6-3.
In some ways, the two big men were more than just mirrors of one another in the injury stakes. In height, build, and the power of their serve and forehands, they had much in common. The score quickly reflected that as the young Australian levelled the match with a 6-3 second set.
The battle was now fully engaged, and appropriately enough went to a tie-break after Kokkinakis staved off a formidable challenge in the 10th game, first a drop-shot winner then an off-forehand winner from del Potro for break point. The Australian’s serving came to the rescue, but he could not hold back the powerful tide from the Argentine, who took a 5-1 lead when Kokkinakis double faulted. He served out the set, 7-6(2) with, naturally, another forehand winner.
After almost two and a half hours, the two men were locked at 2-2 in the fourth set. Yet again, though, Kokkinakis was under constant pressure, and saved another break point to hold for 4-3. He could not do so again, giving up the break in the ninth game, but he was not quite done.
Going for his shots, the Australian piled on the pressure, especially on return of serve, as del Potro attempted to serve it out. Five deuces, six chances to seal the match, but it took a seventh match point, after just over three hours, to take the win, 6-4. The Argentine roared and lifted his arms to the heavens, and the crowd responded—as they always do to this man.
The match had also been a credit to Kokkinakis after such an injury blighted couple of seasons. If he can stave off more physical problems, he will become a force to be reckoned with. For now, there is another force back on the block, and heading to a likely fourth meeting this year with Djokovic.
The Argentine’s problem this year has been his depleted ranking from the giddy heights of No4 in 2010 to outside the top 200 just a year ago. He has thus faced big seeds early in each tournament, and more often than not, Djokovic.
The No2 seed had an easy path to the second round when Martin Klizan retired at the start of the second set, and he goes on to meet the 136-ranked 22-year-old Adam Pavlasek, who beat Ernesto Escobedo in four sets.
Del Potro, however, next plays another man on a protected ranking, his contemporary Ernests Gulbis, who scored a surprisingly easy win in under an hour and a half over Victor Estrella Burgos for the loss of just four games. It was Gulbis’s first main-tour win all year, for he too has suffered multiple wrist problems since 2015.
The Latvian, an unpredictable but, at his best, a hugely talented player who rose to No10 in 2014, has not played del Potro for over three years, but the results of their previous meetings give little away. Del Potro summed it up:
“Everybody knows how good is Ernests on this surface. He has a good day, he can beat all the guys on tour. I have to be focused doing my job, doing my serves and forehands. If he gives me a little chance to break the serve, try to take it.”
On paper, however, there is no doubting that the Argentine is a hot favourite: Gulbis’s record on grass is his worst across all surfaces.
So Del Potro may live to curse again his luck at facing the three-time former champion in the third round, but if their previous clashes are any guide, it will be a match worth watching—and then some.