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Juan Martin del Potro could say, "Don’t cry for me, Argentina"—but no one would listen
Thoughts on the star-crossed superstar, who managed to accomplish so much in the face of endless injuries and historic competition.
Published Feb 17, 2022
UNSTRUNG: Juan Martin del Potro
I like to see that trophy every single day in my home. I don't know if I can get a new one, but I'm doing all my best to try to get one again. Juan Martin del Potro, following his quarterfinal win over John Isner at the 2018 US Open, on the prize he received for defeating Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open final.
Alas, it was not to be.
Juan Martin del Potro’s 12-year effort to duplicate that remarkable performance of 2009 ground to a halt last week with the 33-year-old Argentine’s brief appearance at the Argentina Open. He was entered in this week’s Rio Open, but pulled out due to continuing injury problems. How ironic. How sadly appropriate.
We’re left with that touching image of Delpo draping that familiar headband over the center strap of the court in Buenos Aires, following his first-round loss to compatriot Federico Delbonis.
You’ll have to forgive us for pulling the above quote from the archive, but it just seems too relevant. Too poignant. It invites questions that have hovered over del Potro's career from the start: “What if?” or, “If only.”
But above all else, those words fly like a well-aimed dart at what del Potro has been from first-ball-in to the waning days of his star-crossed career: humble, determined, frustrated, wishful—a man of grand ambitions but few words, and no inclination, or perhaps no ability, to tart up his misfortunes for public consumption.
That reticence—del Potro was a textbook introvert—turned upside-down that popular refrain, “What’s not to like?” For it was difficult at times to understand just why Delpo attained the degree of adulation he inspired, love that has been withheld from so many peers, many of whom actively hunted it.
Anyone who beheld his majestic comeback win over Dominic Thiem at the 2017 US Open will remember how electric the atmosphere was in the Grandstand that late afternoon, as the capacity crowd seemed almost to drag and finally heave del Potro 6’6” across the finish line. That display was unforgettable, but also representative. You could put it down partly to the degree of passion the Argentinian fan base brings to the court, and the infectious nature of that emotional investment. Factor in a crowd’s habitual embrace of any player circling the drain (del Potro won just two games in the first two sets against Thiem), especially at Flushing Meadows.
But the secret ingredient that elevated that occasion was a general familiarity with del Potro’s plight—a Sisyphean, decades-long saga of injury, surgery and one ill-fated comeback after another. It just didn’t seem fair: How could a 6’6” young man with extraordinary power, athletic prowess and a charming personality be so unprepossessing and fragile?
The first alarming entry in del Potro’s medical chart appeared in January of 2010, barely 12 official matches after he won the US Open. Days after achieving a career-high ranking of No. 4, the 21-year old sensation withdrew from an exhibition in Australia due to a wrist injury that would ultimately require surgery. Delpo’s 2010 season withered down to just six matches.
The rest, as they say, is history—neatly represented by the fact that, starting at the 2014 French Open, del Potro missed nine consecutive majors. Along with many others at either end of that streak.
Now here’s a major irony created by the marriage of Delpo’s prolonged absences with his steely determination: His career reads like a highlight reel heavily edited to remove the slumps, frustrations and fallow periods that so many players endure. Although he missed gobs of tennis, del Potro still managed to reach at least the quarterfinals at least twice at every major. He went 2-4 in Grand Slam semifinals, and returned to the US Open final nine years after he won it. He won 22 titles overall, a pair of Olympic medals in singles (a silver and a bronze), and amassed over $25 million in prize money. And don’t ever underestimate how much it meant to Delpo’s compatriots when he helped Argentina win its first Davis Cup—after numerous, agonizing close calls—in 2016.
During his serial comebacks, del Potro posted some resounding wins over the Big Three of men’s tennis. He defeated Novak Djokovic in the bronze-medal match at the 2012 London Olympics. In the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, Delpo knocked Rafael Nadal out in the semis to guarantee himself a medal. In 2018, he hit another unexpected high note with a win over Roger Federer in the final of the Indian Wells Masters—a win that boosted Delpo’s mastery of Federer in finals to 4-2.
Del Potro accomplished all that even though his persistently bad wrist ruled out the use of his piledriving, two-handed, flat backhand. After the Indian Wells match, Federer commented, “What's interesting is that he (del Potro) put himself out there with no double-hander almost, but was just happy to slice and still take losses. . . he was happy enough playing this way, which I admire a lot.”
That unbreakable spirit and uncomplaining adaptability helps explain how Delpo achieved a new career-high ranking of No. 3 at the 2018 US Open, just weeks before his 30th birthday. It was the most successful and promising comeback of his career. He had climbed 25 rungs of the rankings ladder in just 12 months during the most talent-rich era in tennis history.
And there it ended. In early October, a knee injury forced him to pull the plug on his season. It proved to be a career-ender.
Delpo himself could implore, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.” But it’s unlikely anyone would listen to that.