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FRS Tennis

Williams sisters fall, del Potro stuns Djokovic on historic day in Rio

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

It’s clearly been a day for the record books when Rafael Nadal returns after two and a half months and wins not one, but two tennis matches and can’t even fit in the headline.

And what a day it was. Starting on an unfortunate note with Dustin Brown tearing two ankle ligaments, the major stories came one after the other despite just one seeded singles player being eliminated. The wind blustered early on, but it wasn’t until later that the favorites were swept out of their respective tournament.

Serena Williams took everything Dasha Gavrilova could throw at her, pulling away from a 5-4 match for a 6-4, 6-2 win, followed by straight set wins from Angie Kerber (who led 6-3, 2-0 and lost five straight games before winning five in a row herself to prevent a deciding set) and Andy Murray, leading into Nadal’s debut. Federico Delbonis was clocking forehands early and Nadal looked in for a battle after losing a break for 2-2. Instead, Nadal maintained impressive form, showing little rust, and rolled to a 6-2, 6-1 victory. He would return hours later for a strong performance with Marc Lopez in a 6-4, 6-4 doubles win.

Nadal, who had admitted in the days leading up to the Games that his left wrist is still in discomfort, was asked by NBC which parts of his game are affected by the wrist:

Then came the upsets.

With sister Venus, Serena also returned for her doubles match, facing Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova. Recovering from a three-hour singles loss along with a viral illness, Venus was in less than ideal form, and Serena was often caught overcompensating for her. After a 6-3 first set to the Czechs, an up-for-grabs second set full of opportunities went their way as well, 6-4, with the Williams sisters taking their first ever Olympic loss together in what is surely their final Games. Barring an entry into mixed doubles, it’s a tough pair of exiting defeats for Venus and her illustrious Olympic career.

Not to be outdone by the women’s draw losing their top two seeds in round one (second seeded Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia lost on Saturday), dominant No. 1 men’s seeds Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut were stunned by Columbia’s Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, 7-6 (4), 6-3. The Frenchmen were unable to convert a handful of break points to get back on serve in the final game.

Seeded second, Murray and his brother Jamie continued the exodus after a thrilling 16-14 tiebreaker left them defeated at the hands of the hometown team, Brazilians Thomaz Bellucci and Andre Sa, marking back-to-back first round Olympic exits for the brothers.

As Andy Murray was playing on a secondary court, his chief rival for singles gold, Novak Djokovic, was fighting in a battle royale on Center Court. Though no one thought Juan Martin del Potro could repeat his win from the 2012 bronze medal match (anyone saying otherwise is simply revisionist history), it was obviously not the most comfortable way to debut for the World No. 1.

What could have been expected to be a, say, 6-4, 6-3 routine win for Djokovic gradually turned into something much more tense. Not only was the giant Argentinian continuing to hold serve, he was holding casually and hitting the best backhands by far since his series of wrist injuries began. Even in a tiebreaker, Djokovic’s hyper-competence was expected to prevail…yet del Potro and his massive, unreturnable (even for Djokovic) forehands walked away with the breaker and the set.

Now Djokovic would be taxed physically and mentally to come back, but there was no way Novak Djokovic in his prime was going out in the first round, right? Except those inevitable break opportunities never came, at least not for Djokovic. While the Serb was able to fend off danger in his own service games, he was completely unable to probe and penetrate his way into Delpo’s serve.

When del Potro, who was never phased by the moment having played on these stages before, stormed out to a 6-1 lead in the second breaker and later caught another stroke of luck from a netcord on match point, the unfathomable became reality: not only was Djokovic out, he may never win Olympic gold, with his haul from three Olympics netting just a lone bronze in 2008. He’ll be 33 by the time Tokyo rolls around.

It was just the fifth completed match in Djokovic’s career in which he did not generate a break chance. Two came against Roger Federer in Cincinnati (a house of horrors for Nole), while the first, against Jan Hernych in the Netherlands a decade ago, was also the last time Djokovic lost to a player outside the top 100 in straight sets.

After a warm embrace at the net, Djokovic’s emotional reaction was a reminder that the Olympics gold are not irrelevant to a tennis player’s legacy. They combine a Davis Cup atmosphere with that strange feeling of conversing nicely with a relative who you also know you may never see again. The infrequency of medal chances and the unpredictability of four years into the future create a unique pressure. Another opportunity is not guaranteed. Just ask Nadal, or now Federer. No one could see this and still think the Olympics don’t matter:

It’s a crushing defeat for Djokovic, who will likely see his doubles run end soon and be faced with the intriguing decision of whether to pursue that elusive first title in Cincinnati, as Federer is no longer there to deny him, and he’d be the first player to win all nine Masters tournaments. On the other hand, he could use the extra rest to get himself right before the U.S. Open.

As for del Potro, it was hard to watch him post his second wondrous win this summer (he also defeated Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon) and not wonder about a lost Big 5 (or Big 6 with a fully engaged Gael Monfils), but now he has a chance to add another medal to his cabinet. We might reminisce about his place in history, but he can’t, at least not now. Being the top trending topic worldwide does not make him immune from scheduling, and he has both singles and doubles — against Nadal — on Monday.

The Olympic Games: they end for everyone, yet they also stop for no one.

Who benefits from the upsets?

Men’s singles: Nadal has a legit chance at another gold medal match, provided his wrist continues to feel alright. Del Potro inherits the paper-thin opposition Djokovic would have faced in the next two rounds. A possible del Potro-Tsonga quarterfinal could end up with a previously-unlikely medal for the victor. The survivor of a Nishikori-Monfils match will have a better chance in the bronze medal match as well (this assumes Murray makes the final from the bottom half of the draw).

Women’s doubles: This draw is *wide* open with far too many quality teams to list. Literally anyone’s tournament to win.

Men’s doubles: Brazilians Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares become the favorites on the top half without the French duo. Nadal and Lopez get their path to the final cleared out even more with the Murrays eliminated (in the Spaniards’ quarter, fourth seeds Monfils and Tsonga continued the dreadful weekend for French doubles teams and also lost, but they were not factors for going deep in the event).

In ATP play

Nick Kyrgios won his second career title, interrupting John Isner’s Atlanta dynasty. Kyrgios won a pair of tiebreakers in the searing heat that appeared to be heavily affecting Isner before they were some cloud cover. Temps on courts were well over 130 degrees. Isner had won three Atlanta titles in a row, but said he was happy for Kyrgios, who he called a good friend.

American teenager Frances Tiafoe won his first Challenger event and will rise to #123 in the world. The 18-year-old isn’t to Sascha Zverev or Taylor Fritz’s level, but his rise up the rankings has thus far validated the hype around him.

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