The Champion Returns
by Jorge Viale
© Medibank International Sydney/SMP Images
After an injury plagued 2010, Juan Martin del Potro is a dark horse at the US Open.
After an impressive comeback year in 2011, Juan Martin del Potro is excited about returning to Flushing Meadows for the first time since his 2009 US Open triumph.
It has been two years since Juan Martin del Potro became the first Argentine to capture the US Open since Guillermo Vilas in 1977. Twenty-four long months since he conquered Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to become a global star.
But then injury struck. The memory of a right wrist injury that forced him to undergo surgery in May 2010 remains, yet del Potro is still the same person. He hasn't modified his style of play or his entourage. His love for the sport hasn't diminished. But his situation has changed.
The spotlight now illuminates Novak Djokovic's trademark smile, and powerful lights point at Nadal, Federer, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish. Del Potro doesn't mind, he chooses to step back and play a secondary role. He's just happy to be there, his body allowing him to compete at the highest level.
"If it's not this year, it can be the next one, or the other one, just playing the tournament again will be good for me," del Potro told DEUCE. "The favourites are the Top 4 in the world. We've got a new No. 1 and he's the strong candidate. I believe in my chances, but I'm realistic and I think I'm still a little far from them, even though I'm getting closer day by day. Maybe I can be a surprise this year, too.
"If you want to win a Grand Slam, you have to play your best - at level 10 throughout the two weeks. I don’t know if I’ll be in that condition this year, but I will try."
The tournaments that make up the Olympus US Open Series didn’t end up being the preparation he had hoped for, as he couldn’t win more than two matches in Los Angeles, Montreal and Cincinnati.
Yet just being in New York City, playing tennis, is reward enough. Del Potro is eager to relive his fondest memories in the Big Apple. "I want to be there again," he smiles. "Those were two amazing weeks for me. I’m very excited to go there for the first time since 2009, hopefully those weeks are similar this year."
The Tandil native finds it difficult to choose one special moment from that unforgettable run. "It could be the Arthur Ashe stadium at full capacity. The Argentine flags and fans, the American and Swiss fans, because I was playing Roger, also the locker room with my name… If you win the tournament, you have the name on your locker, I like that."
Federer recently described the 2009 final as "one of the biggest losses of my career. I really think it shouldn’t have gone away." Del Potro found himself down two-sets-to-one, and found the right time to change his attitude. He just tried to relax and enjoy the unique moment.
“I was there in my first Grand Slam final, against the best player in the history of our sport," recalls del Potro. "I had nothing to lose… I tried to enjoy it and the crowd really helped me to keep fighting during the last two sets."
In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden wrote, "Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are."
As he was approaching the epilogue of the fifth set, tension came back to del Potro’s body. He served on match point, within seconds of his first Grand Slam title.
"That was the most stressful moment in my life," del Potro recalls. "I was close to winning my favourite tournament, to fulfilling my dream. It was a difficult moment, but an amazing one." He held his nerve, won the point and sank to the ground in celebration.
It was the pinnacle of his career so far and the continuation of a love affair with hard courts that dates back to his childhood, when his mother, Patricia, recalls delPo - whose nickname at that time was 'Palito,' or 'tiny stick' - hit against the walls of rooms at home: a fast indoor surface that wasn’t built for that purpose; threatening flower vases, paintings, furniture, and even human beings.
Marcelo Gomez, Tandil's tennis guru, who had helped Mariano Zabaleta, Juan Monaco and a handful of other pro players from the small mountainous city, remembers del Potro's mother saying, on her son's first visit to the club, "He wants to use every wall to hit the ball against!"
Del Potro's affability and low-profile attitude, together with his powerful game and youth, certainly allowed him to become the second-best endorsed sportsman in Argentina behind Barcelona's football star Lionel Messi. Nike contracted him when he was 15, and he plays with Wilson, wears Rolex watches, and also has VISA, Powerade and Sony Ericsson as sponsors.
"We find he’s the ideal athlete to sponsor," says Rodolfo Masera, Head of Marketing at VISA Argentina. "Not only because of his talent and die-hard attitude, but he also has values such as respect, ethics, grit, love for his country and the attitude to fight with loyalty and overcome adversity. In general terms, he represents good sportsmanship and he’s an example for youth and for all Argentines."
This season del Potro has returned to life, rising from World No. 485 to No. 18 in the space of seven months on the back of titles at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships and the Estoril Open.
Rod Laver, the 1962 and 1969 Grand Slam champion, is thrilled. "I like him a lot and it’s wonderful he could come back from that wrist injury," the Australian told DEUCE. "He hits the ball harder than any other on tour. Listen, if you are a giant like him, you have to do that, you must hit missiles. His serve is huge, the second bounces really high and makes the return so difficult. He's a great fighter under pressure and that’s something that amazes me. In that sense, he has the mark of the champions."
Pete Sampras had time to chat with del Potro at the tournament in Los Angeles and added to Laver's comments. "I am a big proponent of his game," he told The LA Times. "He has a murder serve and I like the fact he hits a pretty flat ball. That’s not easy for a guy of his height. I also like his big attitude and part of it is that he’s willing to take chances. In that way he’s a little like Federer. Roger will go for big shots and he’s willing to miss, but the makes can be incredible. DelPo is the same way."
Praise from highly qualified tennis names is welcomed with a smile, but it won't deviate del Potro from the path of humility. His soft voice will tell that this year's US Open might not be his time to shine, but at least it's worth giving it a try.
He may even observe the same rituals on his return to Flushing Meadows? "I might stay at the same hotel, maybe the same room as in 2009," he says. "I might have dinner at the same restaurant, but it all depends on my level and my game on court."
His bonhomie, the comeback story after an injury lay-off, will fill the column inches in the build-up to the final Grand Slam championship of the season, yet it is his drive to become a better player that has earned him the warmth of his followers.
Former No. 1 player Jim Courier, the 1991 US Open runner-up, confesses, "He’s seen in America as a bit of a gentle giant. He’s big and the game he plays is fierce, but it doesn’t come across to people that he’s scary. They feel he’s approachable, a good person and he plays fair tennis, so that’s why I think he’s one of the crowd’s favourites.
"It was a real shame when he got injured after he developed that momentum, winning the US Open and really showing that he can handle the top players with his power, size, game, and also having the nerve to win the big points against the big players. Sometimes you can have the skills but you don’t have the head and the heart to do it. He has all the components and it’s good to see him building his confidence in his game. Juan Martin is one of the biggest challengers for No. 1 if he’s healthy."
Neil Harman, tennis correspondent of The Times of London, agrees with Courier's analysis. "When you think about very big people, there’s certain vulnerability they carry, too. Isner has it, Karlovic, and del Potro as well: people find a sense of gentle-giant element to his game. I think that’s part of what makes him so popular with the crowds.
"He’s coming back from that terrible injury that he’s had, people sense that vulnerability even more and are more willing to get behind him, and that’s certainly been the case in the United States."
On the eve of the US Open, when a deep run would not only benefit del Potro and his sponsors, but also his family, the World No. 18 says, "I’m used to travelling with my coaches and manager, and my family and friends follow me on TV. But this time, if I’m doing a good tournament, I’ll invite some friends to join me."
If you don’t know them, you’ll hear them. They won’t stay unnoticed. Just wait till you hear them cheer and sing as if it were a football match. Only between points, of course. For del Potro it will mean one thing. He is a major contender again.