The Warning Signs – Shanghai, 2009
When Juan Martin del Potro retired from his match against Jurgen Melzer in Shanghai with a right wrist injury shortly after winning his first Grand Slam at the 2009 US Open, many assumed the retirement was simply a sign that he had burnt out after a long, successful summer.
“I had this injury in Miami this year and I don’t want to risk it,” Del Potro said. “It’s a big tournament here in Shanghai, very important for me, but if I want to have a good finish this season, I have to recover.”
Weeks later, Del Potro withdrew from Basel to continue to rest his wrist, but he was back in action the following week in Paris, winning two matches before retiring with an unrelated stomach injury.
Del Potro’s performance at the World Tour Finals was reassuring for those worried about his long-term health. The Argentinian reached the final before losing to an in-form Nikolay Davydenko.
The Crushing Blow – Australian Open, 2010
Del Potro had time to recuperate before the start of the 2010 season, but when his year began at an exhibition in Kooyong, it became clear he was still bothered by the same wrist tendinitis that forced him to cut back his schedule at the end of 2009. He withdrew from Kooyong, but was determined to play in Melbourne.
At the Australian Open, Del Potro started out by beating Michael Russell in four sets.
“After two hours match the pain came and I feel a little bit, but I can play. Of course, if I be here, I want to win matches,” he said.
In the second round, Del Potro beat James Blake in a five set affair that tested the Argentinian’s limits. He dismissed questions about his wrist after the match, saying that he could play despite experiencing minor pain.
A third round match against Florian Mayer passed by without incident, though Del Potro dropped a set, 0-6, to the World No. 60.
In the fourth round, he lost to Marin Cilic in another grueling five set match.
“I will go home and I will see the doctors there,” Del Potro said. “I need little rest to recovery and be in good shape for next tournaments.”
It would be eight months before Del Potro returned to the ATP Tour.
The Layoff – Post-Australian Open, 2009
Four weeks’ rest turned into months. Del Potro withdrew from Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid.
Finally in early May, he announced that he would need wrist surgery to correct the problem.
“All this year I’ve been wanting to avoid surgery with different treatments but evidently the injury is more serious,” Del Potro said in an open letter to Argentinian journalist Juan Pablo Varsky. “As you will understand, this is not a happy moment in my life, but I’m used to fighting adversity and I have the strength to carry this through.”
In the same letter, Del Potro condemned rumors from the Argentinian press that he was fighting depression and having panic attacks, calling them “false and malicious.”
As expected, he would be unable to defend his US Open title. He watched it on TV at home.
Del Potro came back six months after the Australian Open, but would only play two lackluster matches in 2010, losing in Bangkok to Rochus and to Lopez in Tokyo. He wasn’t ready to compete, and the wrist was still bothering him, so he shut down his 2010 season, having played just six matches.
The Return – 2011
As 2011 began, life on the ATP Tour looked bleak for the rusty Argentinian. His ranking had dropped to 258, and would plummet even further to 485 after the fourth round points he accumulated at the 2010 Australian Open dropped off.
His first match of 2011 went better than his previous post-surgery attempts. He downed World No. 32 Feliciano Lopez in three sets before falling to Florian Mayer in Sydney.
In his first Slam back, he managed an opening round win over World No. 92 Dudi Sela at the Australian Open. But his momentum was blunted once again when World No. 22 Marcos Baghdatis beat him in four sets.
Next, he reached the semifinals at two successive tournaments, San Jose and Memphis. In Delray Beach, Del Potro looked to continue building up his confidence.
“At this moment everything is difficult,” Del Potro said in Florida, as reporters continued to grill him on his recovery. “Maybe two years ago I can beat top 10 players more easier than today. But this is my present. I have to live with this kind of things I’m trying to go through.”
He went on to beat Janko Tipsarevic in the final, picking up his first title since the 2009 US Open. His reaction looked more like he was celebrating winning his second Slam than an ATP 250 event. The emotional Del Potro kissed his repaired right wrist over and over in gratitude.
“After a year out, I feel a little strange,” Del Potro said. “Three months ago, I was thinking about just trying to play a tournament, and now after three months I won a tournament. So it’s very strange, but I’m very glad. I’m trying to enjoy it, you know. You never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
As the year went on, he began to periodically unleash the deliciously flat forehand that stunned Roger Federer in Flushing Meadows two years before, though not as frequently as he once had. He faced new challenges, exploring the new limits of his game with a surgically repaired wrist.
He continued to string together matches. His ranking jumped back into the top 100 after Memphis. In Miami, he earned his first post-surgery top 10 win against World No. 4 Robin Soderling. Slowly but surely, Del Potro edged closer to his old ranking.
Despite his improvements, big results failed to come for Del Potro at the Slams. The furthest Del Potro got in 2011 was to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. But he was healthy and present at all four Slams, and that was something.
Patience – 2011
The 2009 Del Potro who mercilessly toppled three Grand Slam champions on the way to winning the US Open possessed no real self-doubt.
His exuberant on-court celebrations belied his shy disposition, but 2009 Del Potro believed in his own abilities.
He called himself a “little star” after winning his Slam, not yet accepting the comparison between himself and the so-called “Big Four” of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray, who were the “big stars.” But he relished the opportunities he had to take down those players.
2011 Del Potro, however, was older and more pragmatic, knowing that only extreme patience in the wake of his injury would enable him to scale the great heights he was cruelly dropped from in 2010.
“I’m not top player,” Del Potro insisted after his first match in 2011 at Wimbledon. “I’m getting better. Slowly, but I’m getting better.”
“I’m getting better” became a refrain for Del Potro as he dealt with minor injuries and a lack of consistency. He would get close (No. 11), but he would not crack the top 10 in 2011.
There were moments of frustration for Del Potro during his comeback.
Back to Form – 2012
2012 began for him similarly as 2011 did — with Del Potro falling yet again to Marcos Baghdatis, this time in Sydney instead of Melbourne. But 2012 would hold better things for the Argentinian.
At the Australian Open, Del Potro reached his first Slam quarterfinal since the 2009 US Open. He reached the final in Rotterdam and picked up an ATP 250 title in Marseille.
Roger Federer, the man Del Potro stunned in 2009, was on a tear, and Del Potro received the misfortune of landing in his path at nearly every tournament they played. Del Potro lost four times to the man who would become World No. 1 after Wimbledon.
He could make little headway against Federer. It was as if Federer had decided he would never lose to Del Potro again. After all, Del Potro was the culprit who had cost him his 16th Slam in New York and beat him in the 2009 World Tour Finals, and Federer had no interest in allowing him to repeat the success.
At the French Open, their fifth meeting of the year, Del Potro finally had his chance to beat Federer. With commanding ease, Del Potro took the first two sets in their quarterfinal match, and Federer was in a foreboding funk.
But nothing comes that easily against Federer. The angry Swiss, who violently screamed “shut up” at the French crowd in frustration during the second set tiebreak, came charging back to win the match in five sets. Del Potro was out of gas, out of luck, and won just five games in the last three sets while hampered by a minor knee injury. Federer would prevail yet again.
“I don’t know if I’m playing better or similar or worse than 2009,” a noncommittal Del Potro said after one of his matches at Wimbledon, before losing in the Round of 16 to World No. 5 David Ferrer.
Back to the Apex – Olympics, 2012
At the Olympic Games, attention was focused on bigger tennis story lines. Would Roger Federer win his long sought-after Olympic singles Gold on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon that had been so kind to him throughout his career? Would Novak Djokovic reassert himself on grass? Would Andy Murray delight the home crowd by earning a medal?
Yet somehow, receiving no fanfare, Del Potro found himself in the Olympics semifinals battling Roger Federer for the chance to be assured an Olympic medal.
Del Potro, who still keeps the racquet he used to beat Federer in New York in his bag, came out looking like he’d been transported back in time to 2009, taking the first set 6-3. Under intense pressure on serve from Del Potro, Federer managed to take the second set in a tiebreak.
In the third set, both players brought their best in a match that would become the longest three setter in the Open Era. After trading breaks and holding serve 12 times to stay in the match, Federer won again, beating Del Potro 19-17 in the third set, after almost four and a half hours on court. Del Potro and Federer shared a long, emotional embrace at the net.
As Del Potro sat down in his chair, tears streamed down his face, and they didn’t stop as the weary Argentinian left the court.
“To lose this way hurts a lot,” Del Potro said. “It’s tough to speak now. Everyone has their time. The US Open was my time, not today.”
Two days later, Del Potro entered his bronze medal match against Novak Djokovic as the extreme underdog. After spending so many hours on court against Federer only to lose in the most heartbreaking fashion, expectations were nonexistent. Nobody would blame him if he got crushed by Djokovic.
But instead, something else happened.
Del Potro and Djokovic played five uneventful games on serve to start the match. Rain began to fall from the sky, and the match was stopped for a rain delay. Another five games after the match resumed, they were still on serve.
A backhand error, a forehand error, and a missed overhead by Djokovic in his sixth service game handed Del Potro two chances to break. Del Potro pushed the return long on the first one. Djokovic saved the next one with an unreturnable serve. Deuce.
Djokovic sliced a backhand into the net to give Del Potro another chance. This time, Del Potro wouldn’t be denied. He broke on a botched forehand from Djokovic. After a hold, the set was his.
Del Potro broke again for 2-1 in the second set, and held serve three more times. Suddenly it was match point. The poker-faced Del Potro toweled himself off. It could have been 15-0 in the first game of the match for how little he gave away.
He blew on the handle of his racquet four times, his standard ritual. He bounced the ball six times.
He tossed the ball sky high, completely in the moment, drilled a serve out wide in the ad court, and sank to his knees the moment he saw Djokovic deflect the serve toward the stands with a desperation backhand. He had done it.
Tears came freely for the exhausted victor. He wrapped himself in Argentina’s flag on the way off the court.
“I don’t have the words to explain,” Del Potro said. “It’s similar to winning a Grand Slam or maybe even bigger. It’s amazing. I think I’m the most happy of the world at this moment.”
After almost two years of frustration, Del Potro had finally proven to his cautious self that he could beat the best players in the world. His comeback was complete.
2012 World Tour Finals and Beyond
Since the Olympics, Del Potro has racked up a 18-3 record to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals as one of the top eight players in the world.
He finally beat Federer on his seventh try in 2012 in the Basel final.
He will test his will against the so-called Big Four in London, and his publicly stated goal is to reach the top 5 soon. But Del Potro knows how hard it was just to get back to where he is now.
“Now I’m here, God has given me another chance and I’m trying to use this,” Del Potro said in Basel after qualifying for London. “I worked hard every day in order to become an even better player. I enjoy every tournament, because it was a hard time when I was injured.”