Casual tennis fans in the stands for Juan Martin del Potro vs. Vasek Pospisil probably missed the palpable cloud of tension that settled over Stadium Court’s sea of “RF” hats, but those who knew that it would be Juan Martin del Potro’s latest attempt to come back after another wrist surgery, yet another absence, knew that the stakes were higher than just advancing to the second round of a Masters 1000. Though, with his current ranking of No. 616, Del Potro could use the ranking points.
A year and a half ago, a happier Juan Martin del Potro was playing a US Open warmup tournament in Washington, D.C. As he steamrolled his way through the competition to win the ATP 500 title, he joked with the media, smiled a lot, and named John Isner a US Open favorite. After so much hardship, it seemed like he was on the cusp of the greatness that led him to win the 2009 US Open again. Maybe he would add a couple more Grand Slam titles to cement his status as one of the best players in the world.
But he didn’t. An injury to his left wrist led him to miss most of the 2014 season. After telling me in an interview during the week he won D.C. that he was sick of being asked if he was indeed “back,” he was forced to miss another precious year of his prime, and to begin fielding tedious questions about his health once again.
I felt weary on Del Potro’s behalf today as all eyes were trained upon him as he took on Pospisil, an opponent who would’ve posed no threat to him in his healthy days. The humidity in the air made the occasion even more weighty.
Every backhand Del Potro hit was either a weak two-hander that elicited concerned, knowing looks from reporters sitting in the upper deck, a slice backhand that has become a beautiful, effective defensive shot due to the wrist injury, or a two-hander that sort of resembled his healthy days. Those routine backhands he managed to hit would draw smiles. The painful double faults would draw cringes. The forehand would dazzle, or it would sail long.
It was a rollercoaster of emotion that ended with a gut-wrenching plunge back down to earth as Del Potro squandered five break points in the first set only to lose it 6-4, and in the second set, double-faulted on his own set point, eventually losing in unimpressive straights. Del Potro was done, and his legion of fans accepted another injury-related loss to add to the collection. Exiting the court, Del Potro waved goodbye to another crowd of people, most of whom probably had little knowledge of what was going through the Tower of Tandil’s mind.
Though as a tennis fan, I’ve usually turned to Roger Federer when I want to watch (mostly) reliable, smooth, pretty tennis, I’ve always felt a much stronger personal connection to Del Potro as a tennis player and as a human being.
Aside from marveling at the incredible forehand bombs he unleashed to rip that 2009 US Open title from Federer’s hands, I relate so strongly to the way he wears his heart on his sleeve. His game can be boring. Many times, it doesn’t thrill me. He can be a pusher if he shies away from his usual game plan of blasting forehands. And though he’s emotional, he’s not going to cry after beating Dimitrov in the second round of Paris Masters after months of good health.
But sometimes he plays these matches where you know he’s struggling just to get through. His reactions to painful misses and his roars after he saves a break point or hits a big forehand winner on a crucial point make you feel like tennis is less of a silly endeavor and more of a microcosm of the human condition.
“I don’t feel frustrated,” Del Potro said unconvincingly in his presser after the match, his muppet-sounding voice swallowed by the microphone. “I have to take the positive things on my comeback … It doesn’t matter the score for now … It’s the most important to be patient and stay calm, and also try to be positive. I got depressive for a while in the past.”
Indeed, when he missed a year after his 2009 US Open title to have surgery on his right wrist, he had to issue a letter to deny rumors that he was experiencing depression and having panic attacks.
“I am still positive,” he insisted in Miami. I’m not sure anyone in the room believed it, but the quote still went into all our match recaps.
He answered five more questions about his health, and then the press cleared out of the room. He’s used to that line of questioning, and he gamely gives thoughtful quotes on his own well-being. As I walked out, I hoped for him that this could really be the end of his troubles. He’s 26 years old now, and shouldn’t be exiting another tournament with another sad presser, talking about how he has to take positives from just getting through the match without retiring. I’m so sick of that storyline, and I’m sure he is a million times more so.
I used to tune in to watch Del Potro especially in the few healthy years he had in the recent past, back in 2011 and 2012. He was so much fun. I loved his silly on-court antics. All tennis fans have that player whose demeanor we fall in love with, and for me, it was him. After he won the US Open, he declared himself a “little star,” in comparison to the Big Four’s star power. He rescued a moth from the tennis court between points. How could you not fall in love with that?
But now watching him struggling so badly, while facing some really hard things myself, I feel the same kind of frustration that Del Potro has never so openly displayed until now. The idea that you’re not in control of your own future. Watching what’s most important to you slip away. That match out there wasn’t fun like it used to be for Del Potro; it was just about survival. It had implications that went far beyond the tennis court.
The match was sloppy and completely unimpressive on both players’ parts. It will not be remembered or talked about many years later. But there was a special moment at the end of the second set, as Del Potro served to stay in the match. To force a tiebreak, he suddenly unleashed the very best part of his game, hitting aces and hammering his forehand, taking control of the set. He built up a lead in the tiebreak, but lost the set and the match anyway. But maybe Del Potro was still the winner here, because there will soon be a next match for him.
Sadly, this plague of injuries to Del Potro has gone on long enough for me to entertain the sad and nagging possibility that Del Potro may go down in history as a one-slam wonder. But he’s so much more than that. While other players try to develop a cool and collected demeanor, his emotional side is always the driving force. His emotions make him human. Without that, he’d just be another guy in the ATP ranked No. 616.
Like Del Potro, I’m just trying to take one day at a time. Like him, I’m mostly losing. But there’s always another day, another match. He’ll turn it around. I’ll turn it around.