RIO DE JANEIRO – You can find the spirit of the Olympics in a judoka from a Third World country or a fencer from a broken home. But Sunday, you could also find it in a tennis player with $15 million in career earnings who didn’t even win his match.
Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro said he took one look at the Olympic draw last week and thought, “OK, it’s going to be a short tournament for me.” Who could fault him? His first-round opponent, Novak Djokovic, was the best player in the world. Last year, Djokovic won three Grand Slam events. Del Potro won two matches.
Not two tournaments. Two matches.
Everybody in tennis knew the story: del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion and one of the nicest players on tour, had three surgeries on his left wrist, making it almost impossible for him to hit his two-handed backhand. He isn’t really known for the backhand. His strength is his devastating forehand, which appears to have been created on another planet. But this is tennis, and part of the allure of the sport is that you have to do everything. Tennis does not have relief pitchers, designated hitters, 3-and-D forwards or stay-at-home defensemen. If you can’t hit a backhand, you won’t last.
So del Potro struggled. He barely played. He fell from fourth in the world to 1,045th. He thought about retiring. But in February, he returned after his third surgery, and while he wasn’t the old del Potro, at least he could play. He beat Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. He arrived in Rio to represent Argentina, looked across the court at Djokovic, and played absolutely mesmerizing tennis. Djokovic, who usually has all the answers, look like he had none and del Potro won in straight sets.
OK: Upsets happen, lightning strikes, on any given day, etc. But there was a different sensation in the Olympic Tennis Centre that night. It was something that could only really happen at the Olympics, and it explains why the best players in the world continue to savor their chances to play here.
Djokovic, who may wind up as the best player ever, was crying as he left the court. It seemed to hit him that he had never won Olympic gold for Serbia and, at 29, probably never will. And the raucous Argentinian fans made del Potro realize that even though he was playing singles, he was not playing alone.
“Then,” he would say later, still not quite sure how it happened, “I keep winning every day. The crowd made me cry every night. I think that was the key to keep going.”
He beat 36th-ranked Joao Sousa of Portugal. He beat Taro Daniel of Japan. Rain had compressed a tournament schedule that was already tight, forcing del Potro to play 17th-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut the day after he beat Daniel. He beat Bautista Agut. The run was about to end, of course—del Potro’s next match was against Rafael Nadal, one of the best players ever, and nobody beats Nadal and Djokovic in the same week. But it had been a heck of a run. He could build on this.
Then he beat Nadal in three sets. Unthinkable. Del Potro was thrilled, but he was also exhausted – he had not played this much competitive tennis in three years. He had to play Andy Murray the next day, Sunday, in the gold-medal match.
Nobody beats Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in the same week, let alone a guy who was half a player not long ago. But of course del Potro had to try. The Tennis Centre was not quite full Sunday, but the people there were rabid. Both players said it was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
British fans chanted “Andy! Andy!” Argentinian fans chanted “Ole!” The fans were not just there for the tennis. They were there for their countries, for blood.
“It was like a dream,” del Potro said. “I never see something like that in other courts, in other tournaments.”
Neither player played great tennis—Murray did not serve well, and del Potro looked like he had been hit by a bus—but somehow they produced a great match. Sometimes in sports, we don’t need to see the highest level of skill. We just need to see want. This match was full of want.
The match was not easy for del Potro; he had more want than energy. By the second set, every time he lost a point, he looked like he might drop his racquet and take up competitive beer-lifting. At one point, Murray hit a drop shot that was so breathtaking, you wanted your daughter to marry it. Del Potro could not summon that kind of magic. More than once, he leaned on the net after the point, seemingly broken.
But: Ole! Ole, ole …
He won the second set.
“I cannot describe how I did [this] tonight,” he said afterward. “For sure, the crowd made me run. I saw my team, all the Argentinian people who came to watch me in the finals. My country was behind me. I felt all of these things on the court.”
The match was so intense that it was easy to forget it was just a tennis match, until it finally ended with del Potro hitting a backhand into the net. Murray d. del Potro, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5. The two men met at the net and hugged. Murray repeatedly patted del Potro on the back, and del Potro was in no rush to let go.
“I’m so tired,” del Potro said later. “Too many things in only one week. But this will be for the rest of my life in my mind.”
Maybe this is the start of a career renaissance for del Potro. He is only 27, and the way he played this week, maybe he can win more Slams. We’ll see. But it was clear that this week was not just a building block for him.
One of the things that makes the Olympics different from other sporting events is the medals. We are so accustomed to the medals that we don’t question them much. But think about them. Nobody says that Jack Nicklaus won 20 silver medals in golf majors. Or that the Chicago Cubs tied for the bronze last year, their first medal since 2003. But success is whatever we define success to be. College basketball teams hoist banners for Final Four appearances, and we applaud them; when the Indianapolis Colts did it, we mocked them.
Well, when you hold an event once every four years and invite the world, you better acknowledge the folks who finish second and third. Murray won his second consecutive gold medal. But you could argue that del Potro, who added silver to his bronze from London, achieved something even greater.
“Now I have a silver medal, which means a gold for me,” del Potro said. “I cannot believe I bring another medal for my country.”