Juan Martin del Potro Is Back and Ready To Conquer New York
Tennis|Sept Oct 2018

Healthy as ever and playing some of the best tennis of his career, Juan Martin del Potro arrives at his favorite Grand Slam tournament in title-winning form

Ed Mcgrogan

He has the heart to challenge the top players.” Jim Courier, who has first-hand experience facing elite contemporaries, chose these words to describe Juan Martin del Potro after the Argentine beat Roger Federer in a final-set tiebreaker to win this year’s Indian Wells Masters. Del Potro also saved three match points in the dramatic victory, his fourth over Federer in six final-round encounters.

Courier could be accused of cliché, but doing so would diminish the achievements of today’s top players—Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic—as well as del Potro, their kryptonite, foil or friend depending on the day. In this era of men’s tennis, one utterly dominated by an exceptional few, internal belief is as important, if not more so, than anything tangible on the outside.

But it doesn’t hurt to complement heart with the hardest forehand in the game. Or with one the sport’s most vocal fan bases, a traveling phalanx that rivals even Federer’s Swissflag-wearing army in intensity. Just ask Federer, who has been on the receiving end of both more times than he’d care to remember.

“Many fans give me too much love on court, off court as well,” del Potro said this March in Indian Wells, after winning his first Masters trophy.

“This is what I miss when I was injured.”

Moments before his fourth-round match against Dominic Thiem at last year’s US Open, a weary del Potro looked up from his chair. His field of vision was engulfed in blue and white: clouds dotting an azure afternoon sky; swaths of Argentina soccer jerseys among the teeming crowd.

The fans’ anticipation was palpable. They had seen del Potro’s peak at the same event eight years earlier, when a 20-year-old turned tennis on its head with an impressive display of might. On that day, the 6-foot-6 baseline bruiser was David, and he slayed Goliath Federer, who was attempting to win his third straight Grand Slam title and sixth consecutive US Open. In five sets, del Potro backed up his semifinal drubbing of Nadal by winning his first major.

“He played a great match,” Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas, watching that day, told Christopher Clarey of the New York Times. “He will win many more.”

Ever since, del Potro’s loyal armada has watched their hero try, and fail, to reach such heights. It was not for a lack of effort, but for injuries, sports’ cruelest element of randomness.

Del Potro’s wrist troubles began shortly after winning the US Open and lingered like an unkempt closet—try as one might to clean it out, it inevitably gets messy again. His first surgery, in 2010, was on his right wrist; after reaching the fourth round of that year’s Australian Open, he was out until the fall. The next three were on his left. In 2014 and ’15, a stretch that saw del Potro in nearly as many hospitals as tournaments, he would play a total of only 14 matches. He endured enough physical pain and spirit-sapping setbacks that he considered retiring.

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