On a day when the mercury crept to a brutal 40 degree Celsius, wilting the challenge of some of the better players on show, Juan Martin Del Potro survived to tell the tale.
Slow-moving between points at the best of times, the big Argentine seemed to have come to a standstill towards the end of the third set. Hands resting on his knee, barely able to stand, ‘Delpo’ sought some shelter by the court wall. By the third set tie-break, he was limply putting the balls back in play, right into the hitting zone for his opponent — the equally big Karen Khachanov. The Russian, at 21 younger by eight years, shuffled on his toes like a restless boxer, eager to deliver the knockout punch.
But Del Potro, a former world No 4, knows better than most how to get back on his feet after a knock down. Having lost the third set tie-break 0-7, the Argentine bounced back in the fourth, to conjure a 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-7(0), 6-4 to enter the third round of the Australian Open on Thursday.
“I prefer to watch these kind of matches on TV,” he said. “Stay at the beach and watch on TV, drinking beer or juice. But I am so happy to be here after so many years. I had pains in everywhere, but I am still standing up.”
By all accounts, it was a brutal day in the office for these tennis players. The roof remained open on the Rod Laver Arena even as Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic battled for four sets. The temperature was reportedly as high as 69 degree Celsius out on the court. Both Djokovic, who won, and Monfils, who lost, thought that they had put their body at risk by playing in such taxing conditions.
“For sure, we took risks,” Monfils later told the press. “Honestly, I played two set half a breath, for nothing, just to please the official. So at the end, you know, it's a bit risky. It was some harm, you know. I get super dizzy. At the end, honestly, I was like, ‘Okay, I don't want rally so much’.”
The Australian Open is the only Grand Slam that has an extreme heat policy and though conditions on Thursday were borderline, they didn’t quite meet the criteria.
Their twitter handle read: The Extreme Heat Policy comes into effect once the ambient temperature exceeds 40C & the Wet Bulb index (WBGT) exceeds 32.5C. The health of our players is of paramount concern to us, and we are constantly monitoring conditions. Let's hope it cools down!
The court on which Del Potro played, the Hisense Arena, is one of the show courts where people with ground passes are allowed. And despite the heat of the battle rising, spectators kept well away from the stand which had absolutely no shade. The Argentine, meanwhile, desperately tried to cool down with ice packs during the game breaks.
The 6’6 Del Potro, called the Tower of Tandil, was constantly attended by the physio in the fourth set, and he even took a medical timeout after the fifth game with the injury concerns on his thigh and groin. There were many times during the match, none more so than the end of the third set, when Del Potro looked cooked. But this is a man who has made a career out of comebacks.
His breakthrough 2009 season, when he defeated Roger Federer in a five-set thriller to win the US Open, was followed by a troubled right wrist that required surgery. From 2010 and 2015, he underwent four surgeries on his wrists (three on the left). Even though he moves well for a player his height, his body comes under tremendous strain especially while pounding on the hard courts, his favourite surface. But rather than lamenting on his misfortune, the ever-popular Del Potro has become a specialist in finding a way through.
When he realised he couldn’t outlive his opponent, Del Potro decided to out-hit him. That is one heck of a task in itself. Khachanov, one of the Next Gen stars, is a shot-maker of some calibre. After the match, Del Potro who hits fast and furious, admitted the younger players are hitting even harder, making the 29-year-old feel “old”. On Thursday, the players traded blows with equal oomph.
The Argentine’s cannoning forehand was easily the best shot on display and brought him 39 winners. But Khachanov beat Del Potro hands down on the winners department: 73 to Del Potro’s 60. At the end of the three hour 45-minute battle, the two players had won an identical 147 points. But by that irrefutable guiding principle of tennis — playing the big points better — Del Potro had emerged triumphant.
Though tired, injured and sapped of all energy, the Argentine was clocking the first serves and hitting well in the fourth set, a sort of last dash effort to get the match over and done with. He found the vital break of serve in the fifth game and avoided any hiccups on his serve. On his first match-point, with the entire court open for him, Del Potro drove a forehand volley out. But he recovered quickly and forced Khachanov into two errors to seal the match. More world of pain awaits the Argentine when he meets Tomas Berdych in the third round of the Australian Open, but he was relieved to get out of this one alive.
“I did a big effort,” Del Potro said. “I survive.”
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2018 11:03:34 IST