Miami Open: The Humanity of Juan Martin del Potro

It would’ve felt like any other early-round, sparsely-attended afternoon match in Miami. But it wasn’t.

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.



Delpo's USO Celebration after Beating GGL


“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.

Amy can be spotted on a tennis court in the Philadelphia area, shanking backhand volleys.

7 Responses

  1. Brian Boucher
    Brian Boucher March 27, 2015 at 6:38 am |

    There’s a fragile gentleness and great empathy to this guy. My moment of especially seeing that in him was Juan playing Andy Roddick in his farewell/last match on tour.

    After the last point, as Andy was a bit teary-eyed at the net, Juan put his hand on Andy’s face and looked closely into his eyes with that gaze of his. Wow. That’s all I can say.

    You. Spend time with your good friends and grind through it. Get more involved with some of your enthusiasms. And make that call to see that friend you have not seen in years. And keep loving tennis.

  2. Fernando
    Fernando March 27, 2015 at 9:05 am |

    Fernando says watch the 2009 US Open final against Maestro and you will see one of the great performance in tennis. Maestro was at a high level and Delpo withstood the onslaught and took over the match. But if you examine Delpo’s wrist position at the point of impact when Delpo hits ground strokes, you will see that his wrist is cocked outward on the FH side. This puts tremendous strain on the tendons in his wrist especially given the way he blasts away. The right wrist injury therefore is not simply congenital.

    It is not coincidence that Maestro and Djoker have remained virtually injury free. They both have excellent technique and form. Rafa’s form is not as perfect given what he has to do to generate topspin and his BH is a bit of a push.

    Credit to Delpo, one of the most genuine players on the tour, for persevering but yesterday his BH was difficult to watch. How far back can he come? Both Ms. Amy and Fernando are skeptical but we continue to hope, no?

    I am Fernando @vivafernando

  3. SA
    SA March 27, 2015 at 3:33 pm |

    really loved this amy. i think you said basically how all us delpo fans are feeling.

  4. Tom Welsh
    Tom Welsh March 28, 2015 at 7:55 am |

    Thanks for the article, Amy; and for your technical explanation, Fernando. (You’re not Fernando G, are you??) 😎 What you say about the wrist being awkwardly cocked rings true. I have often felt that, with all due respect to Franco Davin, Del Potro has not had the level of technical advice his talent deserves. Davin was a fine player, but he was a classic Argentine clay court grinder. Del Potro’s Blitzkrieg game is very uncharacteristic of South American tennis, apart from Fernando G and some of the big strong Brazilians. It seemed to me almost like divine retribution when his right wrist, the very core of his game, failed immediately after the almost superhuman effort of winning the US Open. As if the gods had decided that, OK, he could beat Roger once in such a critical match – but there would be a heavy price to pay.

    As for the Pospisil match, it is very much of a kind with the first matches Delpo played in 2010 and 2011. If he is favouring his left wrist, it’s probably some residual soreness but mainly just fear that it might go again. With time, practice, and increasing match play I hope that he will just get bored with hitting weak backhands, and occasionally try a big one. As time passes and (we hope) nothing bad happens, his confidence should grow. It may take the rest of this year, but if he can start 2016 fully healthy for the first time since 2009, he still has plenty of years to make his mark.

  5. Tom Welsh
    Tom Welsh March 28, 2015 at 8:02 am |

    Another thing has struck me – something fairly obvious, yet I have never seen it mentioned once in the media. After he rebooted his career in 2011 Delpo’s results got better and better, yet we know that as early as the summer of 2012 his left wrist was causing him severe pain and losing him matches. He plugged away grimly with that handicap until a year ago, when he agreed to have the left wrist operated on. When he opened up the wrist, Dr Berger said it was much worse than he had thought based on Delpo’s play, his reported pain, and the results of scans. The tendon was much worse than the right hand one had been in 2010. So Dr Berger fixed the tendon, Delpo waited nearly a year for it to heal, and did a whole fitness build-up to the 2015 season. He played in Sydney and, after the first match – the pain was back! So he had the second, minor operation to deal with this little bone that Dr Berger thought was causing the pain, and now he is apparently free of the serious pain he has had since 2012.

    Consider the implications! Fixing the tendon did not take the pain away, because the severe damage to the tendon was not apparently causing the pain! So how many other players could there be, playing with seriously damaged tendons, but not suffering the same pain because they don’t have this condition with the little bone? I also find it interesting that Dr Berger, often referred to as the world’s leading specialist in this area, could have been so wrong.

  6. Rita Richardson
    Rita Richardson March 28, 2015 at 12:28 pm |

    I was at the match and it was amazing to feel the almost hysterical support from the fans chanting encouragement. I felt sorry for Pospisil. These magical moments should give Delpo the boost he needs. He strikes me as somewhat dour in demeanor at the best of times. At the practices, he went through the motions of signing autographs and posing for a few photos but he seems to not really enjoy contact with his fans.
    The wrist is worrisome, let’s not pile on Dr. Berger. Even the best diagnostics can’t reveal everything. I agree that Davin may not be the best coach for him now but again, he’s intensely loyal to his small circle of handlers/friends and won’t change now. He just might retire and devote his time to rebuilding the ARG tennis cadre, not a bad way to end a career.

  7. Dave
    Dave April 4, 2015 at 8:27 pm |

    Wow, Amy, amazing piece of writing. Not only on the tennis level, and the human/emotional level, but the ability to put those two things together, which is something that so many people feel, yet I know is really hard to put into words. UNREAL!

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