When a player has injured a key part of his body, coming back to the top tier of the sport, is not an easy thing to do. It’s not only that their physical abilities take a hit, but it also becomes a mental challenge to keep yourself focused and motivated. Add to that, the loss of a chunk of points which they have to make up for as soon as they can once they are back. Ask Juan Martin del Potro, the Argentine 6’6″ giant who shook the tennis fraternity in late 2009 with his stunning U.S Open victory.
Juan Martin, nicknamed DelPo on tour, has had his fair share of bad luck when he was thrown straight out of top-tier tennis right after his U.S. Open victory, having defeated two of modern tennis’ giants, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It took him three long and painful years to be back to his former self when he started to make good use of his potential once again and was back in the top 4. The comeback saw him take a giant leap in rankings – from being ranked 489 in 2011 to rank 5 by late 2013. But, for some people, happiness just doesn’t seem to come so easily. Just after Australian Open 2014, he injured his left wrist and had to take yet another leave of absence from tour. He retired from his 1st round match in Dubai 500 only to bring up worse news for the rest of the season. Much to the despair of his fans all around the world, Del Potro kept delaying his comeback, thus missing the whole season. In 2015, he did stage a comeback to play in two major tournaments. And then underwent surgery on his left wrist yet again. The transition period from being a world-famous tennis player to an injury-prone chap who can’t use his left wrist, wasn’t the most encouraging of times for him, quite understandably. But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. And with Dr. Berger operating the two surgeries successfully, the giant slayer was back in business.
Some players are naturally gifted. Federer’s all-round ability, Nadal’s defense, Novak Djokovic’s backhands – these are trademarks. Del Potro’s is his forehand, which arguably is the best in the game. And quite understandably so. Despite almost 2 years of no professional tennis, when he came back, his forehand was just the same. Powerful, full of topspin, a weapon anybody and everybody would kill to possess. However, he has had to compromise a lot on his backhand side, in fear of getting injured again! But, given the intelligent player that he is, he slices really well from his backhand, and a dearth of quality players who can blast a groundstroke off a low-paced slice, is only helping him in his cause. And HOW! Since his comeback in February, the Tower of Tandil has gone from being ranked a lowly 1042 in the rankings to 64 within a gap of mere 7 months, making sure that he’s going to bag ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year award, yet again. Not just that, he scored wins over 4th placed Stan Wawrinka in the second round at Wimbledon, against Novak Djokovic in the first round at Olympics, against Nadal in the semifinal at Olympics, and against Andy Murray in an epic 5-set thriller Davis Cup match which booked a spot for his country in the Davis Cup final.
More than mere statistics: What’s so special about Del Potro?
But, let’s move over mere statistics and delve a little deeper. Because that’s what Del Potro has always been about. He’s won just one Grand Slam title, zero Masters and a few ATP 500s and 250s. So, what does make him special, actually?
His unconditional love for the game that is universally admired — despite being on the brinks of retirement due to injuries, he’s come back and fought his way up into the big leagues again. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, fights for every single point until the match is over. No matter who he plays, he wins hearts every single time he steps on court, doesn’t matter the outcome of the match. Even when he defeats the top players, he doesn’t get hatred from their fans; instead they feel happy for Del Potro. That’s not something that happens to every player out there. Over time, this huge admiration has developed into respect and despite being a lot less successful than the greats of the game, gets huge amount of respect from fans. In his recent US Open quarterfinal loss against eventual champion Stan Wawrinka, just before the final game of the match, the crowd erupted in raucous, yet enchanting “DelPo, DelPo” chants showing their love for him, resulting in him breaking down on court. In the post-match interview, Del Potro acknowledged the love and admiration saying, “I can lose the match but I will never forget this. It’s bigger than winning any match. I’m so proud to get that from the crowd because I’ve been doing a big effort to play tennis again. They made me so happy tonight and I don’t mind the score.”
While the Juan of a kind trolls might have done the rounds in social media, Juan Martin’s success is subtly underlined in those memes. On his 28th birthday, it is safe to say that he’s been an underachiever, and we can only hope that whatever there is left of him, he makes full use of it, enrapturing us even more by winning some of the trophies that he’s been a much deserving candidate for long; that he’s loved even more, for he is well and truly one of those few players whose success can never be judged by how many titles they’ve won, instead, by how much the fans love him. Sportwalk pays a little tribute to this giant with a heart.