His forehand in particular cuts through the noise like thunderclap. It brought a dash of menace to a sun-soaked Wednesday afternoon at Louis Armstrong Stadium, where he posted a 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 first-round victory over lucky loser Florent Serra of France. What reverberated long after some two and a half hours of shots fired was a lesson in the good that can come from staying flexible.
David Nalbandian made this so. He was expected to face his countryman del Potro in the first round until a strained chest muscle forced his withdrawal Tuesday evening. Organizers scrambled to find a replacement.
Enter Serra, a 31-year-old clay court specialist whose bid to make the main draw was thwarted in the third round of qualifying. The loss seemed like yet another disappointment in a career where the breakthroughs were few -- against Xavier Malisse, James Blake and Tomas Berdych to name three -- but notable enough to earn Serra a reputation as the kind of player that people who bet on tennis know by name.
On Wednesday, though, he went by a different one -- lucky loser, the title given to players who suffer defeat in qualifying, but linger in town in hopes of replacing a main draw player too sick or hurt to go on. Never mind that wasn't exactly true in his case. His hope was to have flown back to Paris while his third-round loss to American Bradley Klahn days ago was still raw, but Air France could not accommodate him.
The best they could do was a flight leaving Wednesday afternoon. But an hour after he booked it, on Tuesday, Serra got news that Nalbandian had pulled out and that he was the first alternate. "It was official this morning," he said. "It was very lucky."
Del Potro did not see it that way. He had spent the past six days preparing to face Nalbandian, his countryman "and then last night [things] changed," he said. "It's not easy." The two players had never met before. They entered the match without much of a game plan. "This morning I [woke] up thinking about Serra, trying to do my game like always," del Potro said.
Serra woke up thinking about the moment. "I tried to enjoy this match, tried to play my best tennis, tried to be aggressive," he said, adding that he went into it thinking "I have nothing to lose."
He played like it early. He served with abandon and swung out on his forehand, lashing it with enough force to send del Potro reeling. Del Potro struggled to break Serra in the fifth game, but the effort was enough to earn him the first set.
Serra was even more unrelenting in the second set until the tiebreak. del Potro wasn't necessarily the better player; he was just the least sloppy. Four of his seven points came courtesy of Serra errors, none bigger than the double fault he threw up to give del Potro a 3-1 advantage. "He served really well," del Potro said, "but I think I played much better in important moments."
That's not to say that del Potro didn't come close to cracking. A game and change before the tiebreak, at five-all, 40-all, del Potro sent a crosscourt forehand into the doubles alley to put Serra one point from taking the game on serve. The frustration boiling over on an afternoon in which he'd commit 17 errors from that wing, del Potro cocked his racket high above his head, as if about to do an impression of Rob Gronkowski celebrating a touchdown, but then just held the pose as supporters begged in Spanish for him not to spike his racket.
It was the last time his composure abandoned him. Serra kept his cool until four-all, 15-0 in the third set. Del Potro served wide to his backhand, and Serra hit a deep return that looked like it just nicked the line, but del Potro, whose short reply set up an easy winner for Serra, had his suspicions. So he challenged, and delighted when Hawk-Eye confirmed his suspicions. Serra's ball missed by an eyelash. "This time," Serra thought to himself, "it's finished."
A break in the next game gave del Potro the match. "I [was] lucky to win that point," del Potro said. It wasn't the test he wanted, but it was the one he aced, the one that allows him to continue a U.S. Open title defense that's spilled into a third year. Serra tournament is over. His new flight back to Paris was to leave at 8 o'clock that same evening. Lucky loser might not be the best name in the world, but at least for one afternoon Serra and del Potro could give it a nice ring.