Many years could have been the year of Juan Martin del Potro. So many of them weren’t.
This, in part, explains why rooting for this 6-foot-6 lunk remains such an appealing proposition to so many: none of the buttery mundanity of rooting for Federer, none of the monotony of hyping up a Nadal or Djokovic who’ve already enjoyed their soul-crushing runs of dominance with double-digit major haul. It is instead rooting for someone whose gifts explode off the television screen but who remains, in some sense, unproven.
Much of that Delpo appeal is that faint air of melancholy, the whiff of what-if. What if his wrists hadn’t failed him? But they did. Now his every gesture reads as impossibly soulful. The hugs (of linespeople, of injured opponents), even the protests (of his own errors, of the umpire’s calls). Most definitely the ritual that he performs after nearly every point, one you will never stop noticing once you notice it: he holds his racket flat out in front of him, almost wistfully, as if surveying new wrinkles in the face of a lost lover. What is our dude trying to divine in the strings and ball fuzz?
Why does he seem to feel so much? Why do his fans feel with him? And why, after victory, when he spends some 10 minutes sinking into that ultra-melodramatic Delpo The Redeemer pose, does it seem not just acceptable but ... symbolically apt?
If anything, a resurrection motif feels too on the nose. A very rough outline of his career, all the years that could have been his but turned out more complicated:
There was the high: a 20-year-old sleeveless conquerer of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in New York, winning his first and only major in 2009. Injury came the next season, then a brief window of good health. But across the 2014 and 2015 seasons, his notional prime, he played only 14 matches, had three surgeries, saw his ranking sink below No. 1000, mulled retirement. The teary comeback began in 2016, with the Olympics and Davis Cup. The gradual, occasionally back-sliding climb started in 2017, leaving him just on the periphery of the top 10, and making me feel like an idiot. Now it is a quarter of the way through 2018, and Juan Martin del Potro is on a 15-match rampage, barreling into today’s semifinal at the Miami Open. He is just two wins removed from back-to-back-to-back titles and a career-high ranking of No. 3.
Delpo offers a potential palate cleanser after the Roger/Rafa dominance of 2017. Just two weekends ago he took down Federer in the final at Indian Wells, the most dramatic and fitful match of the season, three sets of kvetching and shot-making in front of tipsy, Palm Springs desert lizards. A crowd that really, really wanted the Swiss to win, and that left its manners at the champagne tent. It takes Federer, and a critical lack of Hispanophones, to get a crowd to root against Delpo—an uncommon sight.
Federer at several junctures was one point away from repeating at Indian Wells. The match points slipped through his fingers, sometimes after mystifying shot selections. Not often does Federer lose a match after serving up a break in the final set. But sometimes Federer goes a bit off-kilter when the big Argentine lumbers across the net. “I think we have an interesting matchup, you know. We both know what the other is trying to do, and we try to stop the other person from doing it,” Federer told reporters. “It’s basically an arm wrestle the whole time, and I think we enjoy that.”
Arm wrestle is a nice way to put it, but to borrow Marat Safin’s old term, it was more of a “brain fight.” Federer, who still has won 18 of their 25 bouts, will occasionally look rattled. This dynamic was immediately apparent in their classic at the 2009 U.S. Open, and more recently in their U.S. Open quarterfinal duel from last fall. Delpo at his best has a way of breaking Federer’s brain, scrambling his typically cool decision-making, making him do strange things like play his approach shots to the biggest forehand on tour. Somehow the Swiss’s gifts are made to look quaint, fragile and arty in comparison.
Most people would look fragile relative to the Delpo forehand. Enough love letters have been penned for that shot, here and elsewhere: let Delpo have the last word there, a bit of self-awareness from last year’s U.S. Open run:
I know the people likes when I hit hard with my forehands. The people stand up from the chairs when I hit good winners. I like to do that.
If the forehand has been the one unchanging constant in del Potro’s game, everything else has been shaped by the pain. In his initial recovery from his surgery, his backhand was something of a broken wing, requiring all kinds of compensation: lots of footwork to run around it and hit forehands, lots of advantages relinquished when he had to settle for benign slices and chips. Over time he has nursed that two-handed backhand back to health—probably modifying its previous technique, which his surgeon had described as hyperextension, and almost certainly swallowing pain every time he hits it. Still he strikes it with pace and it has once again become a threat rather than a liability or a neutral shot. Invariably at every presser in Indian Wells he would field some question about his backhand and how it was feeling; it’s the thing to ask, the thing that most visibly different about this incarnation of Juan Martin del Potro when compared to the 2009 one. He suggested that the pain also shaped him for the better, invited variety into his game. “Well, I know I’m playing a different game than few years ago. I mix it up with the slice, dropshots. I try to come to the net more often than years ago. And I think I like—I like the way I’m playing now. It’s more funny to watch, also,” he rumbled, in his appealingly uneven English.
But Delpo also had no illusions. For all his new tricks he would still trade this current game for his old game. He misses that old backhand, from before the wrist catastrophes. When asked explicitly if he’d be up for a trade, this self for that one: “Of course no. Because with my old game, I won the U.S. Open. I was No. 4 in the world. But with this way of play, I win—I won different things and important things too. And I think is the only way, if I want to keep playing tennis. And I deal with that every day and accept the conditions of my wrist or my body.” Most players would fend off the inquiry with a platitude about recovery and just preparing for the next match. Delpo is one of the few who’d give an answer with this kind of candor, a weird, poignant note that feels alien to the interview room. Tennis, axiomatically, is not kind to those who get consumed thinking about their past moves. Delpo is out there waxing nostalgic in a press conference hall and you wonder how someone so sensitive in spirit could find such success on the court.
The success, at age 29 and after, will come at great cost. He’ll admit readily that he’s in a steady state of pain.
“I am still doing treatments two, three hours a day for my wrist before the practice, after match. That’s take me a lot of time every day. That’s what I have to do if I wants to keep playing tennis,” he told reporters in Miami on Monday. There are very good reasons for him to keep playing tennis: He has as good a chance as anyone as winning a major this year. Federer lost his first match in Miami and Nadal sat it out altogether. Djokovic, after his second-straight first-round exit, is a ghostly projection of himself. Few things—chief among them his own body—could now keep Juan Martin del Potro from another Slam, nearly a decade after the original.