The weather and ambiance at the Miami Open on Thursday afternoon were exactly as Juan Martin del Potro had hoped — very hot, very Latin and very friendly.
The towering Argentine, always a fan favorite on Key Biscayne, missed most of last season with injuries and hadn’t played a match since wrist surgery in January, so he purposely scheduled his comeback at this tournament because he figured he’d get a warm reception.
That he did. A couple of Argentine flags fluttered from the rafters. Sky blue-and-white-striped soccer jerseys were sprinkled throughout Stadium Court. And, the former world No. 4 — now No. 616 — was serenaded with “Vamos, Juan!’’ and “Ole, Ole, Ole, del Po! del Po!”
But the outpouring of love was not enough to lift him to the second round. Standing across the net was a confident 6-4 Canadian, and he was not about to get distracted by the love-fest.
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Vasek Pospisil, detecting that del Potro’s backhand was rusty, attacked that side, benefited from the Argentine’s costly double-faults (one on set point in the second-set tiebreaker), and walked away with a 6-4, 7-6 (9-7) victory.
“It was like a Davis Cup atmosphere,” 60th-ranked Pospisil said of the lively crowd. “I felt like I was playing away somewhere. It was a great atmosphere. Whether everyone is cheering for me or against me or if it's equal; when there is a big crowd and when they are into it, it's always more enjoyable for everybody. I was enjoying it, and actually it might have helped me a little bit in the end, to be honest.”
Del Potro looked frustrated late in the match, smacking a ball into the stands after his double-fault — rare for the mild-mannered 26-year-old. But after some time to reflect, he said he leaves Miami feeling good about his comeback.
“I have to take the positive things,’’ he said. “I just played an official match after one year [mostly injured], it’s a good signal for the future. It doesn’t matter the score for now.
“It’s only two months after my second surgery, and it’s still very early to feel 100 percent. I’m not confident 100 percent to hit my best backhands yet. I’m not hurried to be in the top 10 very soon. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me to be in the top again. I just wanted to play tennis and without pain.”
Pospisil conceded that del Potro’s backhand “obviously was not the same backhand he normally plays,’’ so he took advantage and pressured that side.
Nevertheless, del Potro enjoyed the experience after so many weeks practicing in solitude.
“It was a beautiful feeling to walk into that big stadium and see the fans supporting me,” he said. “I felt I was missed. I felt the love. Only a few players can go to another country and experience that feeling. I didn’t want to go to some small tournament and win matches. I wanted to come here and test myself against the best, but I demonstrated I am lacking my rhythm and not playing well at the key moments, and that separates the greats from the rest.”