It looked very much as though there was no coming back for the 6ft 6in gentle giant from Argentina after being ravaged by injuries. But Juan Martin del Potro has proved the doubters wrong with another big title under his belt. So could 2018 be his year? Raz Mirza takes a look…
It is great testament to Del Potro for his remarkable determination to turn his career full circle and underline his stunning return to the game with Masters 1000 glory in Indian Wells.
His return to form is one that has reached out to tennis fans and he himself could barely believe he had finally won a Masters series title at the 51st attempt against the great Roger Federer 6-4 6-7 (8-10) 7-6 (7-2), but is now determined to keep the trophies coming in his late-career renaissance.
The potential many saw in him as a teenager finally came to fruition at the US Open in 2009 as Del Potro unleashed his trademark rocket of a forehand and was tipped to become a future world No 1.
He reached the first Grand Slam final of his career after humbling Rafa Nadal in straight sets by out-muscling the normally aggressive Spaniard.
And in the showpiece, Del Potro ended the five-year unbeaten US Open reign of Federer in a pulsating final, twice fighting back from a set down to win 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 4-6 7-6 (7-4) 6-2.
He not only beat the world No 1 with a performance that was both brilliant and courageous, but he wrote his name in the history books by becoming only the second Argentine to win the US title after Guillermo Vilas.
“I had two dreams this week,” said Del Potro. “One was to win the US Open and the other one is to be like Roger. “One is done, but I need to improve a lot to be like you,” he said, looking at the Swiss great.
But after reaching a career-high world No 4 he was struck down by a wrist injury that plagued his 2010 campaign. By the following year his ranking had dropped to as low as 485 but nevertheless, he ended the year ranked No 11 after a comeback.
In 2012, Del Potro was involved in a three-set Olympic semi-final marathon with Federer at Wimbledon. Despite losing 19-17 in an epic deciding set, he finished the year ranked No 7, with four ATP titles to his name – things were looking up.
He was named Argentina’s Sportsman of the Year in 2013 as the success continued. He had climbed into the world’s top five and won ATP titles in Rotterdam, Washington, Tokyo. He also defended his Basel crown.
The future looked bright for the South American star until he was laid low early in 2014 with a left wrist injury that had blighted him since 2012.
He decided to undergo surgery to help alleviate the problem which meant he was forced to miss the rest of the season.
Del Potro’s troubles continued a year later when he had another minor operation after suffering pain and discomfort on his return to action in Sydney.
Having sought the opinion of a number of medical experts, he felt the need to undergo medical treatment for a third time following an unsuccessful return to action at the Miami Open.
“The pain in my wrist wouldn’t go away, I felt uneasy and wasn’t able to train pain-free,” he said in a video posted on his official Twitter feed. “After playing in Miami, my sensations were horrible. I told myself I didn’t want to fight against tennis, I didn’t want to hate the sport.
“I’d rather take the time off that’s needed to try to recover myself as a human being and leave the tennis player aside for a while.”
Having played four matches in 2015, collecting a paltry $23,475 in prize money, Del Potro had fallen to 1,045th in the rankings. Things could not have looked any bleaker.
‘La Torre de Tandil’ took time to rehabilitate, refocus and rebuild his confidence in time for Wimbledon – his first appearance at the All England Club for three years – and after two years in the Grand Slam wilderness.
He left an indelible mark on the tournament by rolling back the years to end the challenge of fourth seed Stan Wawrinka in four sets, before a third-round exit.
“This could be my second or third career after my surgeries,” said Del Potro after victory. “I don’t know if I can be in the top positions again, but if not, I will be happy just to be playing tennis again.”
Despite losing in the third round, Del Potro headed to the Rio Olympics in fine spirits and his thirst for success was sky high. Novak Djokovic lay in wait for a mouthwatering first-round clash.
And by the end of it, he had left the world No 1 in a flood of tears following an incredible match which left both players mentally and emotionally drained.
Del Potro used his colossal forehand to tame the world’s best player over two tie-breaks and it wasn’t long before he was at it again, emerging victorious from a relentless three-set encounter with Rafa Nadal to defy the odds and book an Olympic goal medal showdown with Andy Murray.
In a battle of attrition, both men had put each other through the mill in a four-hour dogfight as Britain’s finest sealed the first back-to-back Olympic golds in tennis history, 7-5 4-6 6-2 7-5.
Known as one of the most ferocious ball strikers in the game, Del Potro used every inch of his powerful serve with deep, flat groundstrokes to try and break Murray’s remarkable defensive resolve.
In the week where he was ranked 141st in the world, the 27-year-old was handed a wild card into the US Open main draw, but his dreams ended in the last eight. He finished 2016 by producing a heroic performance to land him in Argentinian tennis folklore by winning the Davis Cup, but perhaps his effort took a lot out of him because he showed indifferent form during the first part of 2017.
Del Potro excelled in the latter part of the year though, and recorded another famous win over Federer at Flushing Meadows – this time in the last eight – before claiming the Stockholm crown.
The start of this season has seen the towering Del Potro return back at the very top of his game, winning in Acapulco, where he beat three top eight players in a row and then snapping Federer’s 17-match winning streak to seal the second biggest title of his career.
“Well, it’s so big. I cannot believe I won this tournament, beating Roger in a great final and level of tennis,” he said. “I don’t care about the numbers. I just want to keep winning titles like this if I can.
“But the first thing is try to be healthy during the whole year and play where I like to play. Now I have to do a smart schedule on clay to feel 100 per cent for the rest of the season.”
Victory in the desert has set him up for the rest of 2018 where he will be out to claim another Grand Slam title – one which is long overdue – but first it’s time to focus in the Miami Open and the opportunity of a Sunshine double.
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