x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dubai Tennis Championships: Juan Martin del Potro stars for the stripes

Fans are out in force for Argentine to cheer him on to victory and a showdown with world No 1 Novak Djokovic, writes Ahmed Rizvi

Juan Martin del Potro is banking on his forehand and serve against Novak Djokovic next.
Juan Martin del Potro is banking on his forehand and serve against Novak Djokovic next.

There was no Diego Maradona in the stands this time, but there were still more than a few No 10 jerseys around to cheer Juan Martin del Potro into the semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Dressed in their striped blue T-shirts, with Maradona or Lionel Messi's names emblazoned on the back, the Argentines made their presence felt as Del Potro cruised past the German qualifier Daniel Brands in just 62 minutes with a 6-4, 6-2 win.

After the game, Del Potro thanked them, in Spanish of course, and now he hopes they will return again today when he meets the world No 1 Novak Djokovic - a 6-0, 6-3 winner over the seventh seed Andreas Seppi - in their last four clash.

"The fans here are really nice with me," Del Potro said. "The crowd is almost full every time.

"I like the court and I like the tournament. I am so happy to be playing here."

Del Potro had reached the semi-finals last year as well, on his Dubai debut, but lost to the eventual champion Roger Federer. It will not be any easier for him this time, but the Argentine does fancy his chances.

"It's always a pleasure to play against Nole [Djokovic], Roger, Rafa [Rafael Nadal], [Andy] Murray, all the big guys," Del Potro said.

"And I know I need to be 100 per cent or a little more to have the chance to beat him.

"He beat me in London [the ATP Tour Finals] in a big match for me, three sets, very close match.

"If I am ready and I'm very solid with my forehand and serve, I know the way to put him at risk with his game.

"Also, he's the No 1 and he's playing so well this season, and it's going to be a very big chance for me."

Del Potro's wrist, which was giving him some pain when he started the tournament, is holding up well and he is feeling confident about his game.

"The good thing is I'm not getting worse," he said.

"I can hit my backhand often day by day, and it's a good thing to be 100 per cent.

"I know against Djokovic, I will need to hit my backhand 100 per cent and then see if I have a little chance to win."

Djokovic, a three-time Dubai champion, looked in absolute control against his Italian opponent and improved his record against the world No 20 to 10-0.

He needed only 24 minutes to wrap up the first set and Seppi received a loud cheer when he finally held his serve at 1-1 in the second set.

The Italian won two more games and more applause, but the Australian Open champion had a bit too much class.

"It was great performance today," Djokovic said. "As the tournament goes on I am lifting my performance, which is very encouraging. Hopefully I can maintain that tomorrow."

Djokovic and Del Potro have met nine times in the past and the Serbian has won seven of those matches, the last being a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win at the 2012 World Tour Finals.

"Delpo is a fantastic player," the Serbian said. "Very powerful and great serve. I need to be at the top of my game to beat him."

Del Potro will need to do the same too and he will be hoping Maradona will be present at the Aviation Club to inspire him, supporting him just as he does at Davis Cup games.

Maradona was there for his second round win over India's Somdev Devvarman on Wednesday and even went down to the courts to face a few serves from the 24 year old.

"It's a pleasure to share moments with Diego," Del Potro said. "All the Argentinian people love him, and he's our No 1 representative on the world in sports.

"You know, to play some balls with him here in this stadium, it's amazing for me.

"He played really well, not like soccer, but he can hit the balls with me. It was a funny moment for both of us.

"I know him from a time ago. We know each other a lot and I met him many years ago. We have friends in common. We know a lot."

Del Potro is equal in his admiration of Messi and believes the Barcelona ace may even go on to overshadow El Diego.

"Messi is getting closer [to the greatest ever tag]," Del Potro said. "Messi can be bigger than Diego maybe in the future, but they are fighting for a very special place, you know, maybe the best or the most important person of the world. And they are from Argentina, so I'm so proud for that."


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