A slate of withdraws ahead of the event had left many questioning just how much the Olympics really mattered to the top tennis stars, and even whether the sport even warranted a place in a spectacle that is supposed to represent the absolute pinnacle of most competitors' careers. The past week in Rio has provided emphatic answers on both counts.
You want to know how much the Olympics matters? Both the men's and women's No. 1s, players who have already taken a clean sweep of Grand Slam titles in their careers, shed tears as their Olympics came to shockingly early ends in Brazil. There have been tears of joy, too. Monica Puig had the week of her young life to deliver a first ever Olympic gold medal to Puerto Rico. And then on the men's side there is Juan Martin Del Potro.
Perhaps no other tennis player in history has as much love for the Olympic Games as the Argentine surely now feels. In London in 2012 he beat Novak Djokovic to claim a bronze medal in London. But after three subsequent surgeries on his left wrist, the 2009 U.S. Open champion must have wondered whether he'd ever play another competitive match, never mind be able to go for a medal again in Rio.
Del Potro had played just 25 matches in 30 months coming into the Olympics and was ranked a lowly 145 in the world. In the first round he was given the toughest task in tennis, going up against the dominant world No. 1 Djokovic. But in a match that will live long in the memory, he prevailed in two tiebreaks to leave both men unable to hold back the tears.
After such a emotional win, the expectation might have been that any player, particularly one with so few matches under his belt, would experience a sizable let down when returning to the court. Instead Del Potro has kept winning. The thunderous forehand that saw him touted as the man to give men's tennis a “Big 5” not so long ago is back looking as good as ever and he is doing enough with his backhand while protecting his wrist to keep opponents at bay.
In the semifinals he starred in a match the eclipsed even his win over Djokovic, beating 2008 gold medalist Rafael Nadal in an instant classic. The action on the court was only enhanced by the soccer-like atmosphere created by a large contingent of traveling Argentines that has accompanied Del Potro throughout the Olympics.
“I am living like a dream,” Del Potro said after reaching Sunday's gold medal match. “It could be better than [winning the 2009] US Open tournament. My emotions are so high after every match. The crowds make me cry in every match and I would like to say thank you to them.”
Now the man from Tandil, Argentina, is just one win away from completing the most remarkable week of his career and one of the most remarkable weeks in the recent history of tennis. To get the gold around his neck, though, he will have to dethrone the 2012 gold medalist and the form player in the world right now, Andy Murray.
Fresh from winning the Wimbledon title, Murray is another leading player who has left little doubt as to just what the Olympics means to him. Getting to be Great Britain's flag bearer in the opening ceremony was, he said, the “number one” moment of his career. And it was Olympic gold in London that propelled the Scot to subsequent Grand Slam titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in the following 12 months.
After easing past world No. 7 Kei Nishikori in straight sets in the semifinals, Murray is now just one win away from not only becoming the first man to win two singles gold medals, but doing so in back-to-back Olympics.
"It would mean a lot [to win gold again], it's obviously not an easy thing to do, that’s why it's not been done before, but I will go out there and give it my best effort,” he said. “I'm happy that I'm guaranteed a medal after today but the goal is to win a gold medal so I will give it my best effort tomorrow to win another one."
Olympic Men's Tennis Gold Medal Match
Time: 2 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: Bravo
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com