Returning to US Open final, Juan Martin del Potro nears his redemption

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WATCH: Juan Martin del Potro, Nick Kyrgios, and two tweeners

NEW YORK—An apocryphal story has a woman asking Pablo Picasso to paint her portrait. Five minutes later, the work was finished. How much? 

Five thousand francs. 

Five thousand francs? But it only took you five minutes.

No, Madam, it took me my whole life.

In earning a 7-6 (3), 6-2 retirement win over Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the US Open, world No. 3 Juan Martin del Potro had taken two hours and one minute to reach the second Grand Slam singles final of his career.

No, it had taken him nine years. 

For the first time since winning the US Open nine years ago, Juan Martin del Potro is into a Grand Slam final. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

The del Potro health saga is well known by now, his hopes and dreams seemingly shattered into bits by the four wrist surgeries that caused the Argentine to miss significant portions of prime tennis—and even ponder retirement from the game in 2015.

“That was the bad moment for me,” del Potro said tonight. 

Additional medical trauma came this year: del Potro retired in Rome with a grain strain, withdrew from London/Queen’s Club with an adductor injury and, most recently, skipped out on Toronto due to pain in his left wrist.

Said Nadal, no stranger to a medley of physical woes, “I know how tough is this thing. I know much frustration can be when you can’t do the thing that you want to do. He knows very well. Happy to him that he’s able to be back in his top level. Yeah, wish him all the best. 

"For him will be huge if he’s able to win again a Grand Slam.”

But if Nadal and del Potro occupy common ground in the frequent injury department, their approaches differ. For Nadal, competition is a crusade. The Spaniard is as driven, attentive and intense on court as anyone who has ever picked up a racquet.    

On the other hand, del Potro is a gentle giant, given to languid movements and daily yoga sessions.

“I can’t run between points,” del Potro once said, “I need to walk.” Another del Potro comment described his subdued nature: “It’s my game, my way of the game. Slow, calm, patient.”

Clad in an orange shirt, black shorts and orange and white shoes, del Potro versus Nadal gave off the look less of menace, instead appearing more like a friendly neighbor attending a Halloween party and scooping a handful of candy corn.

On a more literal basis, del Potro this evening praised the festive group of Argentines who’d come to New York to cheer him on. 

“Well, you see the friends who cames to watch me?” he said tonight. “They are very important for me to be in this stage at the moment because they were behind me in that years, trying to keep my mind in positive way, for never give up during my wrist problems.”

But even a peaceful warrior is still a warrior. “He’s like a hibernating bear,” said my Tennis Channel colleague, Justin Gimelstob. “You don’t want to poke him.” 

Forced to learn a one-handed slice backhand as his wrist recovered, del Potro’s game has added more. And as his two-hander has picked up—he struck several booming passing shots versus Nadal—the entire del Potro package has rounded into form. 

Said Gimelstob, having witnessed del Potro’s skill first-hand when he beat his charge, John Isner, in the quarterfinals, “To see the way that he has evolved and endured is impressive. For someone with such weapons, he manages his game extremely well. He’s surgical. There are a lot of layers to the way he plays.”

When he won here nine years ago, beating Nadal in the semis and Roger Federer in the finals, del Potro had clearly emerged as a major contender, the kind of player likely to win multiple Slams. But as the injuries continued to take him away from the game, that possibility lessened, even as del Potro would occasionally surface—trick or treat—and do something significant such as beat Novak Djokovic at the 2016 Olympics, or lead Argentina to the Davis Cup that same year, or beat Federer in the quarterfinals here in 2017. 

And yet, even when del Potro would surface from the sea of pain, there remained a haunted quality around him, a sense of what might have been, the tragic march of his career compounded as others garnered those major triumphs. Injuries were one thing, but four wrist surgeries seemed simply unfair. As a Moody Blues song once asked, “Isn’t life strange?/A turn of the page/Can read like before/Can we ask for more?/Each day passes by/How hard man will try.” 

“I didn't know if I will be a tennis player again or not,” said del Potro. “But I'm here. I'm exciting to keep surprising the tennis world, as I did with myself. Never knows what could happen in the future.” 

Come Sunday, del Potro will have the chance to earn a redemptive win as sweet as any in tennis history. 

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