PARIS — Back at the French Open for the first time since 2012, Juan Martin del Potro encountered a bit of trouble navigating the grounds, getting lost a few times as he walked around Roland Garros.
“I never find the place where I have to go,” he joked.
All seemed well once he made it out to Court 6 on Tuesday, though. There was del Potro, pounding those intimidating forehands and big serves and only showing signs of his years of wrist troubles when trying to hit his backhand while advancing to the second round with a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory over qualifier Guido Pella in an all-Argentine matchup.
“He played better than me,” Pella summed it up.
Simple enough explanation for the result.
Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, is seeded 29th at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament he last entered five years ago, when he reached the quarterfinals.
Against Pella, he finished with 13 aces and nearly twice as many total winners, 33-17.
Of note: Only one of those winners for del Potro came off his backhand wing, the side he has more problems with after multiple operations on his left wrist. He is right-handed but uses both hands for his double-fisted backhands, which often are reduced to slices.
“He has a weakness,” Pella said. “I tried to find that weakness.”
Del Potro missed 2+ years’ worth of major tournaments because of three operations on his left wrist, returning to Grand Slam action at Wimbledon in 2016.
His comeback really showed progress at the Rio Olympics, when he stunned Novak Djokovic in the first round and wound up with a silver medal, losing to Andy Murray in the final.
“I was able to show today that my weak point, which used to be my weak point until recently – my backhand – has got better. I think his strategy was to force me into using the backhand, and he was able to see that it was no longer my weak point and that I was able to use my backhand quite well,” del Potro said about Pella, a Davis Cup teammate.
“But it’s true that sometimes I was a little upset, because I know that my backhand is not quite what it used to be.”
Clay has never been del Potro’s best surface – his power-based game is better suited to faster surfaces, such as hard courts – but he did reach the French Open semifinals in 2009 before losing to Roger Federer.
“That year,” del Potro said, “I thought it was my year.”
Now, at age 28, he takes things slowly, knowing he has room to improve as he tries to return to the upper reaches of his sport.
Del Potro will face Nicolas Almagro in the second round, with a potential matchup against No. 1 Murray in the third.
“I have adopted a sort of wait-and-see attitude. We’ll see,” del Potro said. “I try not to make things too complicated, and I try not to set long-term objectives. I really play match by match.”