SAN JOSE, CALIF. — In a much-anticipated clash of former Grand Slam champions, Juan Martin Del Potro showed few ill effects from wrist surgery in dismantling Lleyton Hewitt in the SAP Open quarterfinals 6-2, 6-3 on Friday.
It marked the first time that two former Slam titlists had faced off in San Jose since Andre Agassi defeated Michael Chang in the first round in 2003.
JMDP, who was limited to three tournaments last year and was sidelined for a total of eight months, played more like the ’09 U.S. Open winner than a man ranked No. 484 in the world, regularly clocking 135 mph on his serve and smacking his flat-ball forehand with seemingly reckless abandon. But despite winning 81 percent of his first-serve points and totaling seven aces, the towering, 6-foot-6 22-year-old insisted that he was far from 100 percent, and that he’s waging an ongoing battle with both body and mind.
“I’m trying to fight with them, fight with the players and many things are new for me at this moment,” said Del Potro, who advanced to his first ATP semi since 2009. “But that’s the rule of the game. I’m trying to beat all these things. I need time to beat all of them.”
“He served well. That makes it hard because he was getting through his service game pretty comfortably,” noted Hewitt, an SAP Open winner in 2002, when he defeated Agassi in three memorable sets. “His first three or four service game he hardly missed a first serve. In terms of that, it’s hard to get a lot of rhythm out there.”
Hewitt, who practiced with Del Potro prior to the tournament, said he wasn’t at all surprised by his opponent’s level after the layoff.
“He’s a quality player,” said Hewitt, who finished with five double faults and failed to convert any of his three break-point opportunities. “I don’t think anyone doubted. It was just a matter of how long it was going to take him. He’s going to be dangerous — no doubt. With his style of game, he’s a guy who can go out there, light it up and hit guys off the court.”
Although me may not have shown it on court, Del Potro says he regularly experiences wrist pain. It can be triggered by anything from a firmly struck volley to the weather.
“Everything. If the weather’s humid, I feel it bad,” he said. “Sometimes I’m a little scared. But it’s normal.”
Del Potro hopes the hardest part of his ordeal is behind him now — the uncertainty, the misdiagnoses, the missed opportunities. And if his doctors are right in asserting that the pain is only temporary, and he continues to post results like he did against his onetime idol Hewitt, few would be shocked if he worked himself back into the mix, contending for Slam titles sooner than later.
“You think about many things when you’re feeling bad,” he said. “When I found a solution, I believed in myself again. I believed in my doctors. I always believe in God. That’s helped me to keep fighting. I think that’s probably the reason I’m here today.”
Waiting for Del Potro on Saturday will be defending SAP Open champion Fernando Verdasco of Spain, a 6-4, 6-4 winner over Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin. Meanwhile, Canadian Milos Raonic received a free pass to the final after Gael Monfils pulled out of their semi with a left wrist injury that is expected to keep him out of action for at least a month. He will likely miss scheduled tournaments in Memphis and Acapulco, in addition to France’s March 4-6 Davis Cup tie against Austria.
“Since the Australian Open I’ve had this pain,” said Monfils, who had an MRI at nearby Stanford Hospital the morning after his Monday night exo against Pete Sampras. “We decided to stop for between four and six weeks.”
“It’s been a month and a half that I’ve had this pain,” continued Monfils, who first tweaked his wrist in the third set of his first-round 6-7(5), 2-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 win over Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker in Melbourne. “I can’t hit my backhand. I tried, but my backhand is very soft. I have a better backhand than I showed here — more powerful.”
In his second- and third-round Aussie Open matches against Frederico Gil and Stan Wawrinka, Monfils could be seen with tape on his wrist.
In lieu if his semifinal match, Raonic has agreed to play a 1 p.m. exo against Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic at the HP Pavilion.