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Pain, redemption marked gentle giant Juan Martin del Potro’s tennis journey
The 33-year-old, oft-injured power player from Argentina won the US Open in 2009, but never reached those same heights again—though it wasn't for a lack of trying.
Published Feb 09, 2022
UNSTRUNG: Del Potro Retires
It was September 14, 2009. Juan Martin del Potro lay on his back—and held the world at his feet. The 20-year-old Argentine had just won the US Open and had done so in spectacular fashion. In a Sunday semifinal, he’d crushed Rafael Nadal, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. The next day’s final had been even more dramatic, the Argentine rallying from two sets to one down to derail Roger Federer’s quest for a sixth straight US Open title, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
“I don’t have words to explain,” said del Potro.
In the wake of that dazzling run, the expectation was that many more days like this were in the offing for del Potro. Standing 6’6”, he suggested the shape of tennis to come, his game a forceful mix of sweeping movement, tremendous serving and a flat, penetrating forehand that rocketed through the court. Surely, the form del Potro had shown in New York augured a robust tally of Grand Slam victories.
- May 4, 2010: right wrist surgery
- March 24, 2014: joint surgery on left wrist
- January 20, 2015: ligament surgery on left wrist
- June 18, 2015: tendon surgery on right wrist
- June 22, 2019: right knee surgery
- January 27, 2020: right knee surgery
- August 26, 2020: right knee surgery
These devastating injuries forced del Potro to miss not only months, but years of his best tennis. Ranked No. 5 at the start of 2010, by was at No. 258 by the end. Back again to No. 5 at as 2014 began, two years later, he was outside the Top 600 less than two years later. Up once more to No. 5 by the end of 2018, he ended 2019 at No. 122. (Del Potro reached a career-high ranking of No. 3 in August 2018.)
No one who saw him—and certainly all who played him—will ever forget the profound effectiveness of his game.
And now, still just 33 years old, this gentle giant has at last decided that enough is enough.
“I think this is one of the most difficult messages that I’ve had to give, because as everyone knows, everyone is expecting a comeback to tennis,” del Potro said, voice thick with emotion, in a press conference preceding the Argentina Open. “But it’s possible that it won’t be like this, it’s possible that this is more of a goodbye than a comeback.”
“I’ve been putting in too much effort in order to keep moving forward, and, well, the knee has me living a nightmare. For many years I’ve been trying different alternatives and treatments and doctors, different ways to solve this, and as of this day I haven’t achieved it.”
So it was that the del Potro story line is one less of spectacular success—though certainly there were many triumphs—and more a journey marked by profound perseverance and, alas, from a young age, an awareness of the impermanence of life.
He was born to mother Patricia and father Daniel, a veterinarian who’d also once been a formidable rugby player, on September 23, 1988, in Tandil, Argentina, a small mountain town. When del Potro was very young, his older sister was killed in a car accident. No doubt, from an earlier age than most people, del Potro saw a bigger picture. Said del Potro years later, “she protects me from the sky.”
As you’d expect in Argentina, soccer was front and center. Young Juan Martin excelled in it, but his family also thought it would be valuable for him to play another sport as well. Rapidly he took to tennis, propelled most of all by his love of competition—not just in his homeland, but soon enough, across the globe. The month he turned 12, del Potro reached the finals of a prestigious junior tournament in South Africa.
His ascent into the pros was swift. In 2008, at 19, del Potro went on a summer tear that saw win four straight tournaments—a pair of clay-court events in Europe, followed by two title runs in the U.S., capped off by a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open. Clearly, this was a contender, validated 12 months later when he lifted the champion’s trophy inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But then, like Sisyphus, del Potro was forced repeatedly to start at the bottom and once again seek to climb up the hill. He did so admirably, a kind warrior—at once respected, liked and feared.
Playing under the Argentine flag often brought out del Potro’s best. At the 2012 Olympics, held at Wimbledon, del Potro lost an epic semifinal to Federer, 19-17 in the third—yet went on to beat Novak Djokovic in the play-off match for the bronze medal. Four years later, the Summer Games this time in Rio de Janeiro, del Potro’s first-round opponent once again was Djokovic. Leading up to this match, del Potro had been sidelined for nine straight Grand Slams, only returning to major duty at Wimbledon the month prior.
Versus Djokovic, del Potro summoned his best, squeaking it out, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2)—a tight battle that left both men in tears afterwards. Del Potro would go on to beat Nadal in the semis in a third-set tiebreaker, and made Andy Murray play a brutalizing four hours and two minutes, before winning in four sets, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
“It’s even bigger, like a dream,” said del Potro. “Now I got a silver medal, which means a gold for me. I cannot believe I will bring another medal for my country.”
That same year came another del Potro triumph that combined patriotism, redemption and emotion. Argentina had four times lost in the finals of the Davis Cup. But in the fall of 2016, del Potro helped change that. In the semifinals, on British soil, he avenged his marathon loss to Murray with a five-set, 5:07 gem that helped propel Argentina to the finals.
At the last stage—again on the road, this time versus Croatia—Argentina was down two matches to one, del Potro up against fellow past US Open champion Marin Cilic. When Cilic took a two-set lead, a fifth runner-up showing seemed likely. But del Potro dug in, taking the last three sets to win the match, 6-7 (4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.
“This was an exhausting match,” he said, “and one of the biggest wins of my career.”
With the tie leveled, del Potro’s compatriot, Federico Delbonis, played inspired tennis to beat the dangerous Ivo Karlovic in straight sets to clinch the title.
There were other great del Potro efforts, too. At the 2017 US Open, he rallied from two sets down to beat Dominic Thiem, in the next round taking out Federer before losing to Nadal in the semis. The next spring, at Indian Wells, he fought off three championship points to beat Federer in a stirring final. And that September, del Potro once again reached the finals of the US Open, keen to conquer New York nearly a decade after that glorious youthful. It wasn’t to be, Djokovic far too consistent that evening.
How will we remember del Potro? Alas, so much happened to him outside the lines—so many injuries, exiles, returns and redemptions. But still, no one who saw him—and certainly all who played him—will ever forget the profound effectiveness of his game. The flat, hard, deep forehand most of all made him an incredibly challenging opponent. A del Potro match was guaranteed to be a physical encounter of the highest order.
And yet, as his arc revealed, what he did with body, racquet and ball was merely one of his talents. Though del Potro hadn’t intended for it go this way, he’d most of all demonstrated a pet saying of the legendary Billie Jean King: persistence is a talent.