Juan Martin del Potro began his Sunday stuck in an elevator. When he ended it stuck in tears, one would have thought that the Argentinian – the 2009 U.S. Open champion who played his first Grand Slam since 2014 this Wimbledon – crashed out of the men’s singles event at the Olympic Games in the first round.
But those tears were joyous, as del Potro – a bronze medalist in London’s 2012 games – upset top seed and gold medal favorite Novak Djokovic 7-6 (4), 7-6(2) with a barrage of forehands that left one of the best tennis players ever seemingly helpless.
Helpless is not something that Djokovic is very often, if ever. After the Serbian completed his career Grand Slam by winning his first French Open earlier this year, an Olympic gold medal was virtually all that was missing from his trophy case. The 29-year-old won the bronze medal in singles in 2008, while del Potro beat him for the bronze in 2012.
“No doubt it’s one of the toughest losses of my life, in my career,” Djokovic, who is still alive in men’s doubles alongside partner Nenad Zimonjic, said after the loss. “It’s not the first or the last time I’m losing a tennis match but Olympic Games, yeah, it’s completely different.”
It was the third straight Olympic loss for Djokovic and his first opening round tournament exit since 2009. But there was little if anything he could do to change the outcome. Nobody entered a cheat code for the World Number 145th – a ranking that will rise as del Potro works his way back from three left wrist surgeries – and the match was not played in a video game even if it seemed like it. The same player who also upset Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon hit three forehand winners in the second set tiebreaker alone to clinch the victory.
That was not the only surprise in the tennis competition thus far, as the top two seeds in both the men’s and women’s doubles draws all were eliminated in their opening round matches. Americans Serena and Venus Williams — the undefeated three-time gold medalists in Olympic play – fell in straight sets to Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic. Fifth-seeded Venus also lost her first round singles match, hampered by a virus.
But the story is del Potro’s win. Djokovic warmly embraced the Argentinian at the net before walking off the court in tears himself. But the man surrounded by the “could have” cloud while injured finally has another big result, on the biggest stage in sports no less. For years, del Potro theoretically “could have” competed with men’s tennis’ “Big Four” of Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray because of his baseline firepower. Sunday night he proved why.