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#tbt: Juan Martin del Potro ends Novak Djokovic's Olympic dream again, this time in Rio
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the Argentine pulled off an emotional victory over the world No. 1, in what remains one of the biggest Olympic tennis upsets.
Published Aug 04, 2022
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Former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has been the most dominant ATP player of the past decade, so much so that trying to list all of his biggest victories, records and accolades in this intro would likely have us here all day.
So it’s probably easier to recall which tournaments and trophies Djokovic hasn’t yet clinched—and if there’s one glaring omission from his otherwise sterling resume, it’s a gold medal victory at the Olympic Games.
“Unfortunately, for the third time at the Olympics, I am losing in the semifinals,” Djokovic lamented last summer during the rescheduled event in Tokyo. “I won a medal only once…
“I mean, ‘only’—a medal is a medal—but for my standards and expectations and wishes, it’s not an ideal outcome.”
Djokovic has been chasing a second medal at the Games ever since claiming the bronze in his Olympic debut in 2008 Beijing. Since that breakthrough year, Djokovic has gone on to lift 20 of his 21 Grand Slam trophies, help lead Serbia to a Davis Cup title, and lock down the ATP Tour’s No. 1 ranking for a record 373 weeks.
But an Olympic medal has remained his proverbial white whale. He’s gotten agonizingly close to it a few times, falling twice in the bronze medal matches at the 2012 London Games (Del Potro) and 2020 Tokyo Games (Carreño Busta).
Perhaps his most shocking—and unforgettable—Olympic defeat came at the hands of one familiar foe: Juan Martin del Potro, who stunned him in a first-round classic at the 2016 Rio Games.
“Since the draw, the anticipation was very high and I believe I did what I planned for the match,” said the soft-spoken Argentine afterward. “I didn’t expect to beat him. I’m surprised with the level I showed.
“After all the effort I’ve put in to get back to playing tennis, I’ve defeated the No. 1.”
In 2016, Djokovic arrived in Rio as the heavy favorite for the title… and with a target on his back. The Serbian just completed a “Nole Slam” made up of two majors that year, including his first Roland Garros—another elusive trophy—as well as the 2015 Wimbledon and US Open titles.
His first-round opponent, Tandil native Del Potro, was in a completely different position. The 2009 US Open champion was ranked No. 145 and coming back from another set of long layoffs related to his stubborn wrist injury.
But at the Olympic Tennis Center in Rio de Janeiro, there were no signs of injury or rust from Del Potro across two thrilling sets. Argentinian flags dotted the stands as the Brazilian crowd chanted and cheered in support of the beloved South American—another upset all on its own, considering the two countries' bitter sports rivalry—and in approval of the electric action on display.
After two hours and 27 minutes, the crowd erupted again as Del Potro claimed the victory 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2). Djokovic and Del Potro, both in tears for different reasons, shared a long and emotional embrace at the net afterward.
“No doubt this is one of the toughest losses in my life and in my career,” Djokovic told press later. “It’s not easy to handle, especially now, just after the wounds are still fresh.
“It’s not the first or the last time I am losing a tennis match. But the Olympic Games, yeah, it’s completely different.”
Del Potro’s Cinderella story would take him all the way to the silver medal and, years later, the Argentine eventually hung up his racquets and call it a career due to recurring injuries. Meanwhile, Djokovic still remains in the hunt for an Olympic gold or silver.
At least the 2024 Paris Games are right around the corner…