French Open: Keep your eyes peeled for dark horse Del Potro

You’d be forgiven for forgetting that the big Argentine is actually a Grand Slam champion, but he could well bag a second one next Sunday.

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While the women’s draw has been haemorrhaging seeds left and right in Paris, the men’s competition has a much more familiar look to it with some interesting prospects thrown in.

At the beginning of Sunday’s play, there were five major winners still involved with a total of 56 slams between them. The big three of defending champion Rafael Nadal, 2016 champion Novak Djokovic, and Mr Federer, all survived their early battles.

They are joined in the fourth round by 2015 winner Stan Wawrinka and one of the tallest dark horses that you will see, Juan Martin del Potro.

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With so much focus on the big three and the likes of Dominic Thiem and rising showman Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Tower of Tandil has been more inconspicuous than usual.

This is primarily down to how little we have seen of Delpo in recent months.

Since suffering a knee injury in Shanghai last October, the 30-year-old has only played three tournaments. Four match wins combined from Delray Beach, Madrid and Rome have hardly set him up for Roland Garros but here we are in the second week.

Del Potro, a two-time French Open semi-finalist, is only a couple matches shy of repeating the trick again. Incredibly, it is a decade since he first made the last four in Paris.

Ten years ago, before all the unfortunate injuries and surgeries, the Argentine took on Federer in the last four of Roland Garros. Their brilliant match went to five sets with the Swiss eventually surviving 3-6 7-6 2-6 6-1 6-4.

It was a significant victory for Federer as he earned the chance to battle someone other than Rafa Nadal in the French Open final. Robin Soderling, who bludgeoned Nadal off the court in fourth round, could not compete with a vintage Federer in the in the main event as the Swiss chased history.

A 27-year-old Federer took the final in straight sets to earn the career Grand Slam and his 14th major title. A couple of months later, Del Potro would capture his maiden major at the expense of Federer in that brilliant US Open five-setter.

While it was thought that Delpo would go on to challenge Roger and Rafa after the Flushing Meadows breakthrough, chronic wrist problems which would result in three surgeries prevented this.

As the big three collected most of the loot over the coming decade, Del Potro was in a constant battle with his body, attempting comeback after comeback. Thankfully for all of us, the 30-year-old has found a run of extended good health in recent seasons and has shown the tour what we missed during his time away.

Since his latest return to the court in 2016, Delpo has added an Olympic silver medal, a Masters 1000 and three ATP titles to his collection.

The comeback king also surged to the US Open final last year, his first time in the trophy match since 2009.

All that success has meant that Delpo’s ranking exploded from a low of 1045 in February 2016, to just 3 last August. He’s still ranked inside the top 10 and back to fitness ahead of the grass season and his beloved American hardcourt swing.

But what about Paris?

The 30-year-old played few matches coming into Roland Garros but gained a lot of confidence from Rome. After beating David Goffin and Casper Ruud in straight sets, del Potro took Djokovic to the limit in the quarter before losing 6-4 6-7 4-6.

He’s clearly brought belief from that little run to the Bois de Boulogne and has generally looked good at the 2019 French Open despite taking the scenic route.

Del Potro lost the first set against Nicolas Jarry in the opening round before recovering in four. He was then taken to five sets by Yoshihito Nishioka in the second. Thankfully for his body, Jordan Thompson was dismissed in straight sets in the third round.

The Argentine will next play the powerful Russian Karen Khachanov. 6’ 6” tall with booming strokes, Khachanov is almost a mirror image of del Potro and will be a serious challenge for the 30-year-old.

Don’t be surprised though if del Potro overcomes yet another obstacle on Monday and gives himself a shot at a place in the last four.

There have been few players in the history of tennis with a greater will and capacity to overcome the worst odds than the Tower of Tandil.

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