Plenty of people have got it into their heads that the top half of the draw, obligingly vacated by Rafael Nadal, will part like the Red Sea before Andrew Murray. Such complacency should have been placed in chastening perspective yesterday, however, by the man who has been winched across from the bottom half to fill the injured champion's shoes. On the evidence of his leisurely, ruthless destruction of the experienced Frenchman, Arnaud Clément, Juan Martin del Potro has no intention of doing so merely in a figurative sense.
Last year, Clément made the last eight, thanks to an epic encounter with Rainer Schüttler. At five hours and 12 minutes, theirs was the longest match of the year. This one, in contrast, in effect seemed over after two games. Clément immediately surrendered his service, book-ending the game with double faults; Del Potro responded with a fusillade of four first serves.
He never came out of a canter thereafter. Del Potro won 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 in 97 minutes, without exploring the full range of talent that qualifies him as a formidable obstacle to Murray's progress, not just over the next fortnight, but over the rest of his career.
After all, the Argentine is still only 20, and already up to No 5 in the world after an unprecedented spree of success last summer – when he became the first player on the tour to win his first four career titles in as many tournaments.
It took Murray himself to stop Del Potro's winning streak, at 23 matches, in the quarter-finals of the US Open. But the Scotsman had a devil of a job, needing four grimly contested sets over four hours. Earlier this month, moreover, Del Potro took Roger Federer to five lengths in the semi-finals at the French. Here, unmistakably, is a Grand Slam winner of the future.
Certainly he barely exhaled as he swatted Clément aside on Centre Court. Even the physical disparities between the pair seemed to approach injustice, Del Potro enjoying advantages in age, height and weight respectively of 11 years, 10 inches and 22 lbs.
At 6ft 6in, he could have offered the umpire a shoeshine without bending his back, and owed his only feasible sense of vulnerability in this match to the planes descending along the Heathrow flight path. Clément, in contrast, seemed like some burrowing animal, smarting in the sunlight in his stubble and shades – an impression poignantly reinforced by the grave difficulty he seemed to experience in getting his serves over the net.
The serving of both proved very consistent. Unfortunately, the Frenchman's was consistently execrable. It was almost as though he had some residue of lassitude after his marathon here last year, but the reality was that Del Potro, in his laconic style, was permitting him not the slightest margin. The big man was metronomic throughout, and while he took a little longer to find his forehand range, everything had clicked smoothly into gear by the end. Loping around the court yesterday, he largely abjured the net but proved himself capable of the odd delicacy, as well.
Not so poor Clément, who changed his red bandana for a blue one after the first set, and tried a white one for the third – by which stage a flag of the same material would have seemed more appropriate. His afternoon was perfectly distilled during a break, when his parasol became stuck inside out. Thereafter it drooped wanly as it was held over his head. The one over Del Potro, in contrast, seemed to be shading the brow that might some day wear a crown.
Andy Roddick proved less authoritative in his 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 defeat of Jeremy Chardy. Beaten by Federer in the 2004 and 2005 finals, the sixth seed showed glimpses of his powerful best, reeling off 20 aces, and survived a searching examination from the Frenchman after suffering an ankle injury at Queen's. Del Potro will play the 2002 champion, Lleyton Hewitt, who overpowered Robby Ginepri 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. The No 10 seed, Fernando Gonzalez, also won in straight sets against Teimuraz Gabashvili.