There was the crunching serve and the booming forehand. There was the raspy roar of frustration after a lost point or a shanked shot. There was the well-timed fist pump and the long “Come oooonnnn!” to punctuate a winning rally. There was the laughter and the cheers from the happy audience.

More than anything else, it was the sounds, each of them more resonant and resounding with the roof closed, that let you know Juan Martin del Potro was back inside Centre Court for the first time in 1,092 days.

As John McEnroe put it in the BBC commentary booth, after Del Potro let out a long, frustrated holler that nearly shook the old arena, “The bear is coming out of hibernation, slowly but surely.”

After two hours and 44 minutes, the bear had won his second-round match with fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3. It was the most popular upset—Marcus Willis’ miracle win on Monday aside—of the Championships so far.


It also may have been the most stunning. Yes, the WTA’s No. 2-ranked player, Garbiñe Muguruza, was sent out by a qualifier on Thursday. Yes, Willis beat an opponent ranked more than 700 spots ahead of him. And yes, Del Potro came into this match with a 3-2 record against Wawrinka. But it had been three years, and three separate left-wrist surgeries—one for the joint, one for the ligament, one for the tendon—since Delpo had beaten a Top 5 opponent.

What made a win more unlikely on Friday was the fact that, after returning to the tour in February, he had been a work in progress, unable or unwilling to take a full cut at his two-handed backhand. Del Potro had success against second-tier opponents this spring, but he appeared to be doing it with little more than smoke, mirrors and really big forehands. Few believed that this half-a-Delpo could make it work against a player of Wawrinka’s power and ability.

But when someone has a glaring weakness, his opponent, in a frantic desire to exploit it, can be thrown out of his normal rhythm and coaxed out of his winning patterns of play. That may have been part of what happened to Wawrinka today. After running through the first set in routine fashion, he lost his range at the start of the second and never found it again. Stan said he played “between” tennis and "wasn’t completely free.”

“I missed a few easy shots, double faulted,” Wawrinka said when asked how the match got away from him. “He was serving big, serving good.”


While McEnroe compared Del Potro to a bear, I’ve always thought that his game had a tank-like quality to it. It takes a while to maneuver into position, but when it finally gets you in its sights, look out. Once Delpo had the lead, he bore down and began hammering the ball with more confidence, especially on his serve. In the second set he made 83 percent of his first serves, and finished with nine aces.

While Del Potro hit just half as many winners as Wawrinka, his backhand, which he sliced crosscourt virtually every time, proved effective. It was the Steffi Graf strategy: Keep the backhand low and slow, force your opponent to bend down and hit up, and give yourself time to move around and pummel a forehand.

“On the grass it’s tough to do something [with his slice],” Wawrinka said.

When Wawrinka’s final backhand looped wide, the crowd stood as Del Potro raised his arms and smiled. A few minutes later, he told an interviewer that he his hands were shaking.


“It’s an amazing sensation for me today,” he said. “ I enjoy the crowd. I’m so happy to be on court, I didn’t care [what] the score [was].”

Del Potro’s victory was welcomed, but it was his presence that mattered most. As always, it wasn’t just the victory that brought him pleasure; it was his ability to connect with the audience. The game’s subtlest showman is one of the few pros today who makes a point of trying to bring the crowd into the proceedings, rather than walling them off. He took the opportunity on Friday when Wawrinka challenged a serve that was nearly a foot in. Delpo shouted “Come on!” to Wawrinka. The Swiss played along and put his fingers around his eyes, as if he needed glasses. The ice that usually encases a tennis match was broken.

“I like to share moments with them,” Del Potro said. “I like to do something fun for the crowd every match.”

That’s why we love Delpo. Like a skilled actor, he can add emotion to his performance with the tiniest of gestures. We don’t just watch him; we’re with him. It's good to be with him again.