The Mutua Madrid Open needed a pick-me-up.

The day before the tournament began, the top women’s seed, Serena Williams, informed organizers that she wouldn’t be making the trip to the Caja Magica. On Monday, her fellow future Hall of Famer Roger Federer announced that he had re-injured his back and would have to withdraw. As Tuesday’s matches began, 11 of the 16 women’s seeds, including the top three—Agnieszka Radwanska, Angelique Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza—were gone. The cat may have been away, but the mice couldn’t play. Was Madrid going to be a lost week on the road to Roland Garros?

On Tuesday, the tournament got the feel-good moment it needed from the unlikeliest of sources. Juan Martin del Potro, whose career has been one long downer for the last two years, recorded his biggest win since 2013, 7-6 (5), 6-3, over 14th seed Dominic Thiem.

As well as Delpo played, his emotional accompaniment was, as always, even more compelling. After Thiem’s final forehand skidded wide, the Argentine clenched his fists and let out a roar that sounded like it had been bottled up since, well, 2013. He blew a kiss to the sky and then, tears starting to flow, buried his head in his towel. We wouldn’t have expected anything less from this happily theatrical showman: Like few other players, he makes his emotions our emotions; because of that, he’s loved like few other players. Even the ostensibly objective chair umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, couldn't contain his excitement as he shook Delpo's hand.


In the minutes after his win, Twitter quickly exploded with good wishes for tennis’ gentle giant. Over the last two years, as Del Potro celebrated his 26th and 27th birthdays on the sidelines, many of us doubted we would ever see him on a court again. It seemed that his name would be filed alongside that of Miloslav Mecir—another great talent whose career was cruelly cut short by chronic injury—in the history books. Apparently, Delpo had his doubts, too.

“I was close to quitting tennis,” del Potro told in March. “I got frustrated at home and I didn’t watch tennis on TV because it was sad for me. It was close.”

“It’s very tough when you don’t get the solution quicker,” he said of his nightmarishly recurrent wrist issues. “You see different doctors and no one knows about the problem. But hopefully after my third surgery, the problem is almost fixed and I am here, playing tennis again. I’m looking forward to the future, because I have good things to believe in.”

Judging by his win over Thiem, the best thing Delpo can believe in right now is his backhand. When he returned to the tour two months ago in Delray Beach, he was content either to slice that shot or block it back into the middle of the court—and hope for the best. While he somehow survived into the semifinals, Delpo’s backhand, frankly, looked ominous. Was he feeling pain when he made contact? Would he ever be able to let loose with a full swing on it again? If not, the chances of him rejoining the Top 10, or even the Top 30, looked slim.


But last week in Munich, del Potro swung out his backhand more often, and that trend continued on Tuesday. While it still isn’t a point-ending shot the way it once was, he took full cuts, used it well on the return and moved Thiem around with it in rallies.

First in Delray and now in Madrid, there has been evidence that, like a blind man whose other senses become more acute, del Potro’s lack of a backhand has forced him to be sharper with his serve and forehand. In Delray, he hit as many forehands as he possibly could, and a high percentage of them went for winners. Against Thiem, it was Delpo’s serve that saved the day. Up 5-3 in the second, one game from the win, he built a 40-15 lead with three aces. Then, after squandering two match points, he hit three service winners to bail himself out of trouble.

For Thiem, it was a day of squandered opportunities; he had two sets points in the first set and two break points in the final game, but couldn’t convert any of them. For him, the match might have been a lesson in that most mundane, but essential, part of every top player’s career: scheduling. Until now, the 22-year-old has entered pretty much every clay-court event he could; now that he’s a threat to go deep at all of them, he needs to prioritize. On Sunday, Thiem lost the final in Munich in a third-set tiebreaker to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Two days later in Madrid, he was flat; when he needed a burst of energy down the homestretch, it wasn’t there.

Instead, it was del Potro who was left feeling re-energized.

“I still feel young," del Potro said in March. "I’m only 27 years old. I just need to be healthy, to be strong. If I get that, I will enjoy the tennis life for more years.”

After a tough few days in Madrid, that’s a sentiment that every tennis fan can get behind. Delpo’s emotions, as usual, are our emotions, too.