WASHINGTON, August 10, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
Juan Martin Del Potro enjoys competing against all of the top-ranked players in the tennis world. Sometimes, though, there are lessons learned from playing against qualifiers, too.
On Wednesday afternoon, in the second round of the Rogers Cup in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, Del Potro never recovered from a shaky start and was knocked out of the ATP Masters 1000 tournament by Denis Shapovalov, an 18-year-old Israeli-born Canadian wild card, 6-3, 7-6 (4). The loss to the 143rd-ranked Shapovalov eliminated any thoughts of a Thursday showdown between the 31st-ranked Del Potro and the tournament’s top seed, World No. 2 Rafael Nadal. It’s a match that would have generated world-wide appeal and been a prime-time attraction in Uniprix Stadium.
Del Potro doesn’t back away from any challenge, win or lose, and his career record against Top 10 players – currently 41-69 – isn’t indicative of his potential to dominate on any surface.
“I like to play with those guys,” said Del Potro, during a press conference at last week’s Citi Open in Washington, D.C. “I think we made a better tennis in this era. If Rafa, Roger, Andy or Novak retires, then maybe I could be a No. 1 one day.” He was referring to the current Big Four of men’s professional tennis, Nadal, Federer, Murray and Djokovic.
“I’m learning some things that they can teach us because they are making history every day. I’m so happy to be playing at the same time as them,” said Del Potro, who was unseeded at Montréal and did not receive one of the 16 first-round byes.
First Round Win Over Isner
On Monday night, Del Potro faced a formidable first-round opponent in 19th-ranked American John Isner, who earlier this summer won a pair of ATP 250 titles at Newport (on grass) and Atlanta (on hard court). It’s about as good of a first round match as you can get in a Masters 1000. In this clash of heavyweights, the 6-foot-6-inch (1.98m) Del Potro broke at 5-all in both sets and prevailed over the taller (by two inches) Isner, 7-5, 7-5. Match point was hard-fought, a nine-shot rally that was culminated by Del Potro’s blistering forehand passing shot down the line for the win. After shaking hands with Isner and the chair umpire, Del Potro crossed himself and blew a soft kiss with his right hand looking up and pointing to the heavens for just a brief moment. It’s something he does after each of his victories. Then, turning to the crowd that filled Uniprix Stadium’s Court Central in Jarry Park, he pumped his fist while soaking in their applause.
Looking back after Wednesday’s upset, perhaps the Isner match took too much out of Del Potro. Or, maybe, Shapovalov merely rode to victory on emotion – plus breaking Delpo’s serve four times didn’t hurt his cause. One thing’s certain: He had the backing of the mostly pro-Canadian crowd that packed Court Central, especially during the critical and exciting second set tie-break. Regardless, there will be better days ahead for Del Potro. There always seems to be for La Torre de Tandil.
Winning The US Open, Struggling With Injuries
Del Potro’s career has been filled with much potential, but it’s also had its share of major setbacks, too. After winning the 2009 U.S. Open – which snapped No. 1 Federer’s 40-match tournament win streak in five-set finals after beating Nadal in the semifinals – Del Potro’s world ranking rose to No. 5, and he remained in the year-end Top 25 for the next four years, peaking at No. 4 on January 11, 2010. Then, after finishing 2013 with a 51-16 win-loss record and ranked No. 5, Del Potro’s career was beset with wrist injuries. He underwent left wrist surgeries in March 2014 (joint), then six months apart in 2015 (in January and June), to repair ligament and tendon damage. He also had right wrist surgery in May 2010.
“It’s not easy to stop for a long time and to come back,” said Del Potro, who was born and still resides in Tandil, Argentina. “Not many players can play well again after a long time with an injury, but Novak (Djokovic) will be as good as he is in the future for sure. My advice is to try and enjoy the moment at home and keep those good moments with family and kids and then when he’s ready to come back he will be strong enough to play tennis.
“To be honest, I waited three or four times with all of my injuries and if I had to stop again for a long time, I don’t know if I could come back again and play tennis.”
Sidelined for much of 2014 and almost all of 2015, Del Potro’s ranking plummeted to No. 1,045 due to inactivity. Now that he’s finally injury free, his career is on the mend – and he’s enjoying himself – win or lose. Last year, he won an ATP 250 indoor title in Stockholm and was a finalist at the Summer Olympic Games – losing a memorable gold medal match to Federer. He finished with a win-loss record of 32-12 and his ranking was a respectable No. 38. So far in 2017, his ranking has risen to No. 31 and his win-loss record currently stands at 16-10. However, Del Potro admits he doesn’t think about his standing in the world rankings. It’s something that’s not important to him.
“I don’t care if I’m top 30, top 50,” he said. “I just want to play tennis again as I did in the past. I want to bring important things to me and my country like last year when I got the Davis Cup and I got a silver medal in Rio (at the Summer Olympics). For me, it would be enough to play without pressure now, but I would like to be in the top position, for sure, one day in the future.
“I know how difficult it is and I know how my body feels after a strong tournament. My wrists still bother me sometimes depending on the condition of the weather.”
Changing Perspective On The Game
In Washington last week, the weather was hot and humid, and at times rainy, too. The conditions made the hard courts speedy fast. Seeded 13th in a talent-rich ATP 500 field, Del Potro played both of his matches at night. After a first-round bye, he beat Lukas Lacko of Slovakia, 7-5, 6-2, to set up a third-round meeting with No. 2-seed Kei Nishikori of Japan. It was originally scheduled to be showcased Thursday night on Stadium Court at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. However, due to a lengthy rain delay that backed up play on all courts, it was moved to the smaller Grandstand 1 court, where Nishikori beat Del Potro, 6-4, 7-5, finishing in the wee hours of Friday morning. Instead of making a deep run at the Citi Open as he had hoped, the Argentine played just two matches.
An obvious question everyone in Washington wanted Delpo to answer was: “How are your wrists?” After all, Del Potro is well known for hitting aggressive forehand and two-fisted backhand ground strokes that can be taxing on his wrists. He gave a simple but direct response. “The wrists feel good, but sometimes after a long match or a hard training session, I have to do treatments to my wrists. But there nothing dangerous and nothing I can’t fix. Everything is under control,” said Del Potro.
“Every year you have to change the way (you) train and the way of your game, too, because the younger guys come in so strong and they hit much harder than me or the other guys. You must be strong enough to play at the same level all the time. I think if you have a smart team, good coaches and good physical trainers, you can be a professional over a long career.”
Because of Del Potro’s history of injuries, it has changed his perspective on the game. “Now, I choose the tournament and I try to play in tournaments I like to play and cities that I would like to be in, like Washington, D.C.,” said Del Potro, a three-time Citi Open winner. “This tournament is great for me and I love to play in the United States.”
The 28-year-old Del Potro, always a fan favorite no matter where in the world he competes, said he’s looking forward to playing for a few more years. And why not? Federer just turned 36 this week and he’s No. 3 in the world, still playing some of his best tennis. “I got unlucky because of injuries in the past, but I solved all of these problems now and I’m in good shape,” said Del Potro, who has amassed 362 wins since turning pro in 2005 and has a career earnings surpassing $16 million USD. “I’m still playing tennis and I love what I do.”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.