Tennis

Juan Martin del Potro’s tennis heartbreak

Juan Martin del Potro's tennis heartbreak

He is the giant of grief.

Juan Martin del Potro looks set to quit tennis – the six-foot-six right-hander, now 33, tearfully draped his headband over the net on Tuesday after a first-round defeat in his home country , Argentina, a signal the end is approaching.

There was a time when he seemed like he could rule the world. Del Potro exploded into the sport as a teenage wonder and was just 20 when he triumphed at the 2009 US Open, demolishing Rafael Nadal in straight sets and roaring from a 2-1 deficit in the final to beat Roger Federer, back when Federer was at his peak Federer and won the New York tournament five times in a row.

Del Potro’s game was a brutal shock. He had all the weapons of modern tennis, including a low, flat forehand that he whistled from the baseline as if holding a Roman candle. While he was tall (winning the Open made him the greatest major tournament champion of all time), he could be crafty when needed, and he also had the mandatory five-set stamina. . Tennis had Roger, Rafa, Novak and Andy, and Delpo was younger than all of them. He looked set to own the decade.

He does not have. This big body has let del Potro down on several occasions. A right wrist derailed him just months after his breakthrough at the US Open. Surgery and rehabilitation followed. It was cruel, as if the tennis gods had blessed del Potro with the ability to throw lightning, then brutally stripped away the super power.

He would miss weeks. Month. Longer. Years have been stripped away. Del Potro might surface for a flash of shine, then everything would vaporize again. In 2012 I was at the All-England Lawn and Tennis Club when a resurrected del Potro took on Federer in an astonishing four-and-a-half-hour Olympic semi-final, perhaps the greatest men’s best-of-three-sets match ever played. . Federer prevailed 19-17 in a third set, so punishing the Games then changed the format to a tiebreaker.

“I’ve never seen him play so well from start to finish,” Federer said that day.

Del Potro then beat Djokovic to claim a bronze medal. He would play competently until 2013 and then it would all fall apart again. In 2014, he also had surgery on his left wrist, and again in 2015, and he completely disappeared from the radar. Remarkably, he resurfaced at the Olympics, this time at Rio 2016, where, ranked 141st in the world, he upset Djokovic, overtook Nadal in the semi-finals and reached a final with Murray, where he lost but cried over his unexpected money. .

Del Potro’s career rocked operatically – triumphant heights; watery stockings; great episodes of grief and redemption, executed to great effect. There have been comebacks, comebacks to comebacks, comebacks to comebacks to comebacks (a Davis Cup for Argentina in 2016) and more medical nightmares (four right knee surgeries). His comebacks have become rare and epic. Del Potro has big, expressive eyes that flash frequently during those brief turns on the pitch, because he, more than anyone, understood the hell he had been through and what it took to get out of it.

If he wasn’t your favorite player, he was your favorite player’s favorite player. Roger loved her. Rafa loved him. Novak loved him. The crowd adored him too. Del Potro played every game like it was his last, because it really could have been. At the 2017 US Open, I saw an energized del Potro come back from a two-set deficit against Dominic Thiem on the outside court of the stand. The joint got so rowdy it almost levitated off the ground.

Juan Martin del Potro tearfully draped his headband over the net after a loss on Tuesday.


Photo:

juan mabromata/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By then, a melancholic aura had set in – he was a player who could tangle with the best in the game, but his body never held its end of the bargain. Tennis may be a ‘sport for life’, but professional tennis is a tough job, and if you’re not equipped with the right ligaments and joints, you’re at risk of collapsing as soon as you arrive. We’ve grown accustomed to age defiants like Roger, Rafa and Tom Brady – and how about Kelly Slater, champion surfer at 49 – but early breakdowns remain common too.

He did his best to stay with him. Del Potro lost to Nadal in the 2017 US Open semi-final, then saved three match points to beat Federer in Indian Wells, then came back in the US Open final, where he fell to Djokovic. The race was proof of what a healthy del Potro could be, but the health pretty much ended there. The pain returned, and he was anything but a ghost until this week, when he surfaced at Guillermo Vilas Stadium in front of a thundering crowd and lost to Federico Delbonis in straight sets.

If that’s really it — there seems to be some confusion over whether del Potro really said a final goodbye to Buenos Aires, or wants to think about it — it’s been an admirable career. When he came to tennis he looked cut out for it, but he wasn’t, and yet he continued to emerge from the canvas like a champion. Every once in a while, he would bust one of those forehands that hissed two inches above the boards, and it reminded everyone of his exciting gift. Juan Martin del Potro remained a marvel, and that’s what really broke your heart.

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Write to Jason Gay at [email protected]

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