Delpo the giant is Argentina’s new hero
Today – Tuesday 23 September 2008 – is an important day in the life of Juan Martín del Potro. It’s his 20th birthday. If someone had told him two and a half months ago that he would be celebrating his birthday as world No 13 and Argentina’s new sporting hero, he would not have believed them, but he turns 20 with his picture all over his country’s newspapers. Some have even likened him to Argentina’s top football star Lionel Messi – rich praise indeed in such a soccer-mad country.
Those newspapers were in no doubt about del Potro’s timely arrival on the Argentinian tennis scene. Although he made his Davis Cup debut last year, winning a decisive fourth rubber against Austria’s Jürgen Melzer, del Potro hadn’t played in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas for 17 months until last weekend. By then he had made himself indispensable to his country.
It all really began the week after Wimbledon. He won the title on the clay of Stuttgart and then a week later won in Kitzbühel. Good progress, but nothing remarkable. Then with the rest of the world in Beijing at the Olympics, he won Los Angeles and Washington. A run to the quarterfinals of the US Open took his unbeaten streak to 23 matches, but while it ended there in defeat to Andy Murray, it had also taken him to a career-high ranking of 13.
That made him an automatic selection for the Argentina team to face Russia, but the South American nation still considered David Nalbandián as its tennis hero. Nalbandián had never lost a Davis Cup rubber at home – singles or doubles – until last weekend, and was thought to have his nation’s destiny in his hands. But not so.
Del Potro seemed slightly mesmerised by his level of play after beating Nikolay Davydenko 61 64 61 on Friday, and was even more so after coming to Argentina’s rescue in beating Igor Andreev 64 62 61 in the live fifth rubber that saw Argentina through to November’s final. But then this is a gentle giant – he stands 1.98 metres (6ft 6in) in his bare feet, and roars like a lion when he’s on court. But off it he is gentle and humble. “I’m living the dream,” he said after beating Andreev, “and I want to enjoy this moment because I can’t be sure it will happen again.”
If that’s a great attitude for someone still a teenager, he has to be prepared for it to happen again in two months’ time. By 21 November, the first day of the final, Del Potro will be Argentina’s No 1 player. He is currently 13th, second to Nalbandián’s 7th, but Nalbandián’s ranking is almost exclusively made up of three tournaments at the end of last year which will have slipped off his points total by the Davis Cup final. In current Race positions (the ranking based on this year’s results alone), Del Potro is 10th and Nalbandián 22nd, which means Del Potro won’t have to face the world No 1 Rafael Nadal on the opening day of the final. That could be crucial to Argentina’s chances of lifting the Cup for the first time.
Del Potro, who plays with the same Wilson racket as Roger Federer, hails from the city of Tandil, south-east of Buenos Aires. Known as ‘Delpo’, he had a veritable army of Tandillenses out in force in the Parque Roca at the weekend, chanting ‘Delpo Delpo’ as their hero roared himself to victory. By Sunday night he was not just Tandil’s hero but the whole country’s, a fact the press was happy to play up.
“Thank goodness del Potro came good when he did,” said one Argentinian journalist during the fifth rubber of last weekend’s semifinal. It seems an odd comment about a country with seven players currently in the top 100, but since the era of 2003-04 when Argentinian players dominated the claycourt circuit (the 2003 Hamburg Masters had Nalbandián, Coria, Gaudio and Calleri as the four semifinalists, and the 2004 French Open had Nalbandián, Coria, Gaudio in the semis and a Coria-Gaudio final), Argentina has lacked serious world-beaters. Now it appears to have another one in Juan Martín del Potro.
Whether he can win the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas on his own is unlikely. Spain has a formidable doubles team in Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, a pair that certainly seems stronger than any pair Argentina can put together, so if they win the doubles, Argentina would have to beat Nadal at least once to win the Cup. If del Potro keeps up his current form, you have to believe it’s just possible.
At various points over the past weekend, the crowd in the Parque Roca included a who’s who of modern Argentinian tennis. José-Luis Clerc, Gaston Gaudio, Mariano Zabaleta, Guillermo Coria, Gabriela Sabatini, Paola Suárez, Juan Monaco and José Acasuso were all there at the invitation of the Argentina Tennis Assocation (AAT), as was Lucas Arnold Ker, the former doubles player who has battled back from cancer providing a heart-rending sight with his son Ignacio on his knee. Regardless what happens in November’s final, in years to come del Potro will no doubt receive his invitation to Davis Cup ties. But that’s for the future – the legend he is building is still only in its infancy.