Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro prove past is behind them after French Open clash
As Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro met at the net, you could sense the mutual respect between the two as they shook hands after an engrossing two hour and 53 minute battle.
This was their third duel inside 12 months — they had split honours in the first two matches in 2016, battling for nine hours and nine minutes in total.
On Saturday, they seemed set for another marathon, but Murray picked up his game after winning the 83-minute opening set and booked his place in the fourth round of the French Open with a 7-6, 7-5, 6-0 win.
Del Potro, the clear crowd-favourite, warmly put his arms around the world No 1 and congratulated him, gracious in defeat.
■ Venus Williams: Proving a force at 2017 French Open
■ Predictions: Nadal primed for La Decima? Can Halep land first major?
However, nine years ago, when the two met for the first time, in the first round of the Rome Masters, there was no show of such warmth between the two.
Instead, there was a heated exchange between the 20-year-old Scot, ranked No 18 in the world at the time, and the gangly Argentine, 19, then ranked No 71.
The flare-up started during a change of ends in the second set when a peeved Murray wanted to know why Del Potro had not apologised for drilling a ball towards his head.
Unapologetic, Del Potro shot back: “You and your mother — it’s the same, always.”
Murray, understandably, was furious about his mother being dragged into the conversation and a heated argument followed.
On Saturday, you could find no residual embers of that episode.
Rivals since their junior days, Murray and Del Potro have far too much respect for each other these days to be antagonists.
“He is, in my opinion, one of the best players in the world when he’s fit and healthy,” Murray said about his third-round opponent on the eve of the match.
And he was not exaggerating. Del Potro is, indeed, one of the best players in the world and should have been a member of the Big Five or Big Six club today, but for his long list of injuries.
He has spent more time on the treatment table than tennis courts since breaking the then Big Three’s dominance at the grand slams to win the 2009 US Open.
Overnight, “DelPo” had become a superstar, the first major champion not answering to the name of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic since Marat Safin’s Australian Open triumph of 2005.
A few months after his US Open triumph, however, Del Potro had surgery on his right wrist and missed most of 2010, his ranking slipping from No 4 to No 485. Three years later, he was back at No 4, before injury struck again.
This time, it was his left wrist that required two surgeries and another lengthy recuperation period followed, during which his ranking slipped to No 616.
But he is back now, at No 30, having announced his return during a memorable campaign at the Rio Olympics last summer, where he defeated Djokovic and Nadal before losing to Murray in a four-hour-and-two-minute epic.
Del Potro got his revenge a month later, winning a five hour and seven minute battle in the 2016 Davis Cup semi-final in Glasgow — the longest match of Murray’s career and his first home singles loss in the Davis Cup.
Their duel in Paris failed to reach the heights of those two matches. Del Potro tried his best, but he was clearly not in his peak shape.
A doubt for the tournament because of back and shoulder injuries, he had struggled with a groin problem as well in his second-round match, but was fortunate as Nicolas Almagro was forced to retire due to a knee injury.
So au revoir to destiny’s forsaken child, but a warm welcome to Murray. The No 1 is back, growing in confidence with every outing and, with not too many major obstacles on his half of the draw, the final does not seem such a distant target now.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport
Updated: June 3, 2017 04:00 AM