When Team World’s Juan Martin del Potro, still just 20 years old, became a Grand Slam champion at the 2009 US Open, he quickly became one of the most-loved figures in tennis.
Showcasing talent, humility, joy and gratitude in equal measure, the game’s newest star had captivated countless supporters with his rare ability and unique spirit.
While media worldwide celebrated a refreshing new force in tennis, thousands gathered in his hometown of Tandil, Argentina, to fete the gentle giant. “It was like a dream,” del Potro later commented. “For sure I will never forget that moment.”
Even then, part of the appeal was that del Potro’s breakthrough had an ‘against-the-odds’ feel to it. The first man to defeat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at a single Grand Slam, del Potro also disrupted the stranglehold that the Big Four group of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray held between the 2005 French Open and 2013 US Open.
The ability to rise to the most momentous challenges would ultimately take on a different meaning for del Potro, whose physical setbacks have been well documented. Soon after rising to world No.4 in January 2010, the Argentine suffered the first of several wrist injuries requiring surgery. That right wrist healed, Del Potro returned to the tour in 2011 but soon after fighting his way back into the world’s top five in 2013, he suffered a left wrist injury that would require three surgeries in a 15-month period.
“I was really close to quit(ting) tennis because after the first surgery, the second one, and in the end the third one, it was really, really sad moments for me,” del Potro since admitted.
Still, the popular champion had many supporters and most crucial were those who were closest. “My family and friends help me a lot to never give up. And I think I’m doing well now. The worst part of my life is totally in the past, and I’m living a good present and looking forward for a good future.”
Delivered during his breathtaking comeback season in 2016, it’s a candid yet typically understated assessment from the gently spoken ‘Delpo’.
Ranked outside the top 1000 on his return to the tour in February, he surged back to the top 40 after a quarterfinal run at the US Open and his first title for 33 months in Stockholm.
“I’ve been trying to fix my problems for the past two years and I didn’t expect to win a title at this moment in my career,” said the emotional champion.
The title, del Potro’s 19th on tour, wasn’t the only highlight of a resurgence that would see peers vote him the ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year for a second time. The memorable season also included match wins over Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic and Nadal – and many stunning reminders of why del Potro is so beloved.
One of them was the 2016 Rio Olympics, when the Argentine shocked then-No.1 Djokovic in the first round and outclassed Nadal to reach the final, where he finished runner-up to Murray. “The crowd made me cry every night,” del Potro said of his silver medal performance. “I think that was the key to keep going and to never give up.”
That Olympic high proved the perfect preparation for an even bigger one to follow. Representing Argentina in Davis Cup finals in 2008 and 2011, del Potro found his best in the team event on his 2016 return. A five-set upset of Andy Murray in the semifinals helped secure another final appearance against Croatia, where del Potro emerged the hero as he secured Argentina’s first-ever title with a come-from-behind victory over Marin Cilic, 6-7 2-6 7-5 6-4 6-3.
The ability to find his best on the big occasion only adds to del Potro’s popularity. A first French Open appearance in four years in 2017 already had a feel-good element but the 28-year-old immeasurably added to it as he consoled a distraught Nicolas Almagro when his second round opponent retired with a knee injury. “I think he has everything to fix this problem and come back on tour stronger,” del Potro related. “I just do what my heart feels, you know?”
While “coming back stronger” could be a catch cry for the resilient competitor, it’s following what “his heart feels” that makes him such a true champion.
Juan Martin del Potro is one of John McEnroe’s captain’s picks for Team World at the Laver Cup.
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