Andy Murray is the King of Tennis right now, but can anyone look past Juan Martin del Potro's incredible story?
Andy Murray won the singles gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Juan Martin del Potro won a million hearts.
That was the sound that reverberated around the court till the very last game of the tennis event at the 2016 Rio Olympics. And no, that sound wasn't created by the winner of the singles gold medal. This was one of the few instances in recent tennis history where the runner-up's efforts – more specifically his bombastic forehand – will probably be remembered more vividly than the champion's undoubtedly impressive achievement.
Andy Murray won the singles gold by defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the final, and I'm tempted to call him the King of Tennis at the moment. Yes, Novak Djokovic has been far and away the most dominant player on the planet for the last few years, but the last two months have belonged to Murray. Titles at Queen's, Wimbledon and now the Olympics, an 18-match winning streak, a string of come-from-behind gutsy victories (particularly against Fabio Fognini and Steve Johnson) – everything that the Scot has touched lately has turned to gold. Literally.
With back-to-back Olympics wins, Murray now has something that none of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic has. Who would've thought something like that would ever happen?
There were other fairytale stories this Olympics too, of course. Monica Puig stunned everyone with her heart-warming title run, Venus Williams proved once again that she's not capable of performing anything less than brilliantly at the Games, and Rafael Nadal produced yet another belief-defying gold medal run – to add to his already overflowing cabinet of insane achievements.
But what stood out the most for me from the 2016 Olympics was Del Potro's forehand and the astounding impact he created with it. He won all of his matches with practically one groundstroke – something that I didn't think was possible in modern tennis. And when I consider that this is a man who, just six months ago, wasn't sure of ever returning to top-flight tennis, his silver medal finish here starts looking a little surreal.
Before the start of the final I thought Murray would have an easy time of it. Del Potro had already logged a lot of miles on his body through his first five matches; defeating Djokovic and Nadal in the same tournament is possibly the toughest thing to do in tennis. A three-hour marathon just a day earlier, best-of-five format in the final, squaring off against one of the best defenders of all time, backhand not at full strength yet – all the signs pointed to a meek surrender by the Argentine in the final.
But I hadn't accounted for THE shot. I hadn't fully come around to the idea that despite everything, Del Potro's forehand is a force of nature unlike anything the tennis world has ever seen. As he began unloading on his monster hits mid-way through the first set, I had to hit myself on the head for failing to anticipate this. This was Del Potro 2.0 we were looking at; a player who was now forehand first, and everything else later. Of course he was going to reduce the entire match to just that one terrifying shot.
There's something very unnatural about Del Potro's forehand. It's not just the sheer power he generates off it – anyone with his kind of core strength would be able to do that. It's not even the laser-like flatness with which he strikes it – anyone as tall as him would have little trouble replicating that aspect of the shot. It's the tremendous consistency of it that makes it truly special.
When you throw yourself completly into every swing, put your entire life force behind the shot on every point, you can't – and shouldn't – expect it to land within the court more than 3-4 times in a row. And yet Del Potro made it land 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 times in a row. That's not...natural.
Murray did his best to retrieve as many of Del Potro's bullets as humanly possible, but after a while it started looking like a futile exercise. Moreoever, as Steve Tignor noted so astutely for Tennis.com, Del Potro's compromised backhand meant that Murray virtually had to face two different players at the same time.
Anything directed at the Argentine's backhand was likely to come back as a soft slice or a bunted jab, and anything off the forehand wing was returned at a gazillion miles per hour. And what if Del Potro decided to run around the backhand and suddenly unleash the Kraken? The Scot had to play a bit of a guessing game throughout the match – he had to constantly deliberate whether to backpedal several feet behind the baseline and scamper after the forehand, or advance into the court and create his own pace off the weak backhand. That can't have been easy.
Ultimately Murray did overcome all of that to come out the winner, and he deserves full credit for that. But will we ever forget Del Potro's inspired run to the final? When I watched him blow Djokovic off the court in the first round, I thought that was as good as it was going to get for the Gentle Giant, much like his win over Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. But it only got better from there.
His victory over Nadal in the semifinal was the most stark reminder yet of what the tennis world had been missing the whole of last year. The match had a bit of everything – unreal power from Del Potro, incredible defence from Nadal, and immense passion on both sides of the net. That Del Potro could still stand after the gruelling battle, and then come back just a day later to give Murray everything he could handle, will likely go down as the greatest accomplishment of the Argentine's career yet.
There's been a long-running debate about how much value tennis players attach to Olympic success. It can't be denied that winning a medal means more to some players than it does to others. Murray has proven twice over that he belongs firmly in the former category. And while Del Potro may not have anything golden to show for it, his desire for national glory is now set in stone too.
How else could he make his forehand work like that over the last week?
BOOM. Dipa Karmakar and her sob-inducing efforts aside, the sound of Del Potro's forehand is going to be my most striking memory from Rio 2016.