On dodgy knee and fragile wrist, Juan Martin del Potro continues to redefine resilience

Gentle Giant. Tower of Tandil. Already, his nicknames sound somewhat like you would find them in Age of Empires or World of Warcraft. If he were in a video game, Juan Martin del Potro would be the “powerful nice guy” character and indeed, that is exactly what he is in the tennis system.

Make no mistake, Juan Martin del Potro is a force to be reckoned with and he lacks for nothing in shots or skill. A two-time Olympic medallist with a Grand Slam to his name, his talent has never been in doubt. What has, however, is his physical capability to keep up with an increasingly physically taxing game.

At 30, Del Potro is not “too old” to be in tennis - and certainly not going by the ages of those above him in the rankings! However, what is catching up with him is not age, but the many injuries that have sidelined him for months at a time in the past.

File image of Juan Martin del Potro. Image courtesy: Twitter @ATPWorldTour

File image of Juan Martin del Potro. Image courtesy: Twitter @ATPWorldTour

Not many people can say that their earliest 'big win' was against Roger Federer in his prime. Del Potro is one of those select few. The stage for that win also happened to the finals of the 2009 US Open, Del Potro’s first — and to date only, Grand Slam title. Only 20 when he beat the seasoned GOAT, Delpo quickly became a fan favourite — not just for his huge forehands, but his happy, unassuming, cheerful nature. Only one year after that big win, Del Potro’s fragile wrists — taxed in no small part by his wristy shots, were already beginning to show immense wear, and in 2010, he had his first ever wrist surgery. And it was not to be the last. Sidelined from the majority of 2010, he ended that year on somewhat of a bum note.

2011 saw a number of decent victories for Del Potro, who that year, at a number of tournaments, ousted some other big hitters — Kevin Anderson and Mardy Fish. In fact, that year would mark one of the biggest comebacks by any player on the circuit: Del Potro started the year ranked 485.

He finished ranked World No 11.

That would be the first of the ‘comeback years’ set for Del Potro, whose career has been marked both by his downswings and by these exact same comebacks. In fact, 2012 was to be the year of the tall Argentine, who went fairly deep into each of the Grand Slams, defeated Novak Djokovic at the Olympics for bronze, having lost the semi-finals to eventual finalist Roger Federer in what had been a particularly nail-biting tie. The 65-17 win-loss record he ended that year on was nothing short of miraculous for a man who, less than a year prior, was dangerously close to dropping off the radar entirely.

The return of Del Potro was not just a feel-good story; it was the return of a crown prince, in some ways, to the realms he once ruled. It was a fan favourite, a Ruler of Hearts, as it were, coming back to reclaim his kingdom. Certainly, he is revered in Argentina, also home to some legendary footballers. He is almost like that one video game character you play with that always veers dangerously off course and yet somehow, manages to claw his way back. It’s an epic storyline one might well watch in a Hollywood movie and that, I think, is part of the allure of the Del Potro epic.

Regardless, that first wrist injury was not to be the last — 2014 saw yet another wrist injury for him, and to poorly paraphrase Michael Corleone, just when Del Potro thought he was in, they pulled him back out.

2015 and 2016 saw him hit his career-lowest ranking, as he forced himself to struggle to tournaments that he was clearly not fit to play. But yet again, as has always been the case, he one-upped his injury. He would climb over 600 ranks ahead of the Olympic Games at Rio, trumped Rafael Nadal there, and finally took Andy Murray to a 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 final to settle for silver. Halfway through the tournament he was already among the bookies’ top favourite too, and was considered the third pick for winner there. He ended the year winning Argentina’s first ever Davis Cup title in the country’s history, further cementing a heroism he had built up years before.

Over the past year, Del Potro has systematically and carefully rebuilt his career from the bottom up. Despite personal tragedy striking him midway through last season, the tall Argentine has soldiered on in a stoic and still, somehow cheerful way, as only he can.

It would be incorrect to say it has all been smooth sailing since; for many who watched Del Potro through that season, it was clear to see his struggles with his wrist even through 2017 and some of 2018 — especially the Rogers Cup this year. This year, he has the Indian Wells title under his belt with a win over Roger Federer, who held three championship points at one point in that match and was even serving for the title.

Resilience, thy name is Del Potro.

Between his French Open run this year and fluctuations in the rankings, Del Potro has hit his career highest ranking of No 3 this year.

This year may not be winding down on the most ideal note for Del Potro. Following a straight-sets loss at the China Open finals to Nikoloz Basilashvili, where he came into as the number one seed, he was forced to withdraw from the Shanghai Masters in Round of 16 clash against Borna Coric, this time with a troublesome knee.

Frequently in and out of surgery, Del Potro has one weapon, however, that very few, if any, possess — he is resolute in a way that cannot truly be described. Even as pain and injury try to wrest control, Del Potro is right there, fighting back. His statistics from the past two years illustrate as much unequivocally. What they do not necessarily show is the sweat that goes into battling injury.

Is Del Potro a glass cannon? Considering how much he is forced to go back and forth recuperating from injuries and surgeries, one could well say that. But he is certainly one of the most consistent glass cannons ever. A fan favourite, a national hero many times over, and just an all-round nice guy; you truly would be hard-pressed to find someone who dislikes Juan Martin del Potro.

It is now coming up on nearly a decade since Del Potro’s big win at the US Open and somehow, through everything, he has still held on to his No 4 ranking which he first held in 2010.

Many have drawn comparisons with other seriously injury-prone players, to try to judge where Del Potro’s comeback might go from here. But all things considered, reaching this level is nothing short of a miracle for a man who has been brought to his knees in sheer pain.

Del Potro said it best himself earlier this year at Indian Wells: "I'm surprising myself. I don't like to compare this time with a few years ago, but I'm just enjoying what I have to do every day.”

And with a smile on his face through it all.

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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2018 12:10:02 IST

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