So here is something that can only happen at the Olympics. It was at the end of a nice full day – I had spent much of it watching the inconceivable Simone Biles at gymnastics – and it was time to find something to eat (never easy at the Olympics) and get some writing done and crash for a new day. You have to pace yourself at the Olympics. It was time to go back.
Only – Novak Djokovic was playing an evening match at the tennis venue.
Like you I’m sure, I was a kid who played every sport I could. Tennis is the last sport I play. It is the sole survivor. Basketball and football are out of the question – just don’t need a blown ACL at this point in my life. I don’t skate well enough for hockey. Baseball would be fun again but I’m too lazy to find an adult league and, besides, I wouldn’t match up. There’s no time in my life for golf. I get seasick. I have never liked running. I am a defensive driver. Nobody around wants to play kickball. Tennis is it.
I’m terrible at tennis, of course, but the good news is that most tennis enthusiasts my age are about as terrible, and so it works out. I play tennis as much as I can, and I watch an excessive amount of tennis, and so here’s the point – no matter how hungry or tired I felt, I just could not justify passing up the opportunity to watch Novak Djokovic play. I have come up with this life philosophy that I call the “How would you explain that to the 12-year-old version of yourself?” creed. It works like this: Whenever a cool opportunity comes along, and I feel too lazy, too tired, too cranky, too old or too curmudgeonly to take advantage, I ask myself that question: How would you explain that to the 12-year-old version of yourself?”
There was no explanation good enough for missing out on the chance to watch Djokovic play – especially because he was playing the delightful and intermittently brilliant Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro. So I went. And that was before I even knew that Del Potro had been stuck in an elevator for 40 minutes and had to be saved by Argentina’s handball team.
And … because these are the Olympics … it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.
Djokovic is my favorite player in the world. He’s my favorite because he wins through will and guile and the completeness of his game. He does not have a dominating serve. He has a superb forehand, an even better backhand, but others have more dominating strokes (Stan Wawrinka’s backhand, for instance, is one of the world’s wonders). Djoker moves as well as anybody and he has enough touch to be magical around the net. But others have these skills too.
The one thing that Djokovic does better than anybody in the world, without question, is return serve, but even this is a somewhat intangible gift, a combination of reflex and focus and anticipation that is hard to describe. The point is that Djokovic’s greatness is complex and somewhat mysterious, which makes him so much fun to watch.
Del Potro’s grandeur is not hard at all to explain. He has a bomb of a serve. And he has a forehand that is, in the words of my new pal and YouTube star Flula Borg, “holy smoketones!” There is nothing subtle about Del Potro (who is 6-foot-6) and there’s nothing perplexing about him. When he’s healthy and hammering forehands, he is almost unbeatable. He was the only player not named Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer in a grand slam final between 2004 and 2009. Unfortunately for him – and for tennis fans – he has rarely been healthy. He only just returned to the game after two years away.
So this was a ridiculous and unfair first-round match-up for Djokovic as the No. 1 player in the world, but these are the breaks. Del Potro is technically ranked 145th in the world because of his long time away. On Sunday, he played like the best player in the world.
It was obvious more or less from the start that Del Potro was on. His plan was clear because his plan is always clear: He was going to try and stay in the points with his backhand and then, when the opportunity came, he would unleash his forehand with all the fury and power inside. And he did not miss. As mentioned, I have watched a lot of tennis. I’ve been lucky enough to watch some of the greatest players in history live. And I have to tell you: I have NEVER seen anyone hit forehands the way Del Potro did Sunday night. Not Federer. Not Nadal. Not Ivan Lendl or Pete Sampras or anyone else. It was overwhelming.
Nobody in the world is better at returning power with power – he’s the ultimate counterpuncher. Nobody in the world is better at playing defense – he runs down seemingly everything. And still Del Potro simply hit him off the court. It was mesmerizing to see Djokovic try to keep the ball on Del Potro’s backhand. They would exchange, five, six, seven, eight backhands with Djokovic so careful to avoid the Delpo forehand And then finally Djoker would hit a shot just a little bit off, just a little bit too far from the corner and Del Potro would run around his backhand and BLAMMO! Point was over. Like that.
There was another wild moment. Djokovic hit a sharp-angled shot and Del Potro ran it down but could only manage to hit a squash-style slice forehand. But he hit with such spin and power that Djoker couldn’t handle it. At that point, Djokovic stopped and made a series of frustrated motions which could be clearly translated to mean: “Topspin, slice, it doesn’t matter, this guy never misses.”
“Those are some serious bombs coming from @delpotrojuan’s forehand,” Caroline Wozniacki tweeted.
The only way to beat a player who is hitting the ball at that superhuman level is to survive, endure, hang in there and hope (pray) that the player’s level drops. This is what Djokovic tried. As great as Del Potro was, he still could not break Djokovic’s serve. DelPo had seven break points (Djokovic, astoundingly, had ZERO) but each time Djoker found a way to survive. And so both sets came to tiebreakers. Del Potro won the first tiebreaker with relative ease.
Then, in the second tiebreaker, DelPo began with a bomb of an ace. And the next two points were the match. On the first of those two points, Djokovic challenged Del Potro’s forehand and charged the net. “Bad move,” I said to the guy next to me and BLAMMO, DelPo rocketed a forehand winner.
Third point, Djokovic AGAIN challenged Del Potro’s forehand and charged the net – it’s like he was saying to himself “There’s no way this guy can just keep hitting the ball like this.” You know what happened. DelPo set up and BLAMMO. The match was basically over then.
On match point, DelPo hit two awe-inspiring forehands that Djokovic somehow managed to run down. Then Del Potro hit a forehand so hard that it didn’t just hit the net cord, it crashed into the net cord. It’s like the net yielded to the ball’s fury. Of course the ball bounced over. And Del Potro had won one of the most extraordinary tennis matches – one of the most extraordinary sporting events -- I have ever seen.
The match was emotional for both men. They are the best of friends, and so there were all sorts of swirling emotions. For Del Potro this was a return, proof that he has come back from his injuries and can once again play otherworldly tennis. Djokovic was unquestionably happy for his friend. But, this was also the best chance for Djokovic to win an Olympic singles gold medal, something that he desperately wants. When the next Olympics come around, he will be 33. And Del Potro unquestionably hurt just a little bit for his friend.
So there was a lot happening here. These are the Olympics. As the match ended, I began to walk out, blurry eyed, overwhelmed, as madly in love with sports as ever. I looked back on the court. Both men were sobbing.
Joe Posnanski is the NBC Sports national columnist. He is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, winner of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame’s National Sportswriter of the year and two-time winner of the Associated Press Sports Editors National Columnist of the Year. His fourth book, “The Secret of Golf: The Story of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus,” was released in June 2015. Read Joe's work year-round on NBC SportsWorld and NBCSports.com.