Del Potro's Story Fit For The Big Screen
Every match in a professional tennis player's life is like a scene from a movie. One particular clip might stand out more than others, but ultimately, it's a part of the film. To a player, matches operate the same way: Some are essential and come at crucial moments. The stakes in other matches may not be quite as high, but often still feature tension and drama. Some results linger while others are brushed off and quickly forgotten. There are those that are emotional and leave even the spectators drained. Outcomes are sometimes expected and don't bring the suspense -- until the unexpected happens.
For Juan Martin del Potro, the memories are countless. The match stats behind those memories, however, are calculable: The Argentine has accumulated 400 victories on the ATP World Tour -- an impressive feat by itself, let alone the fact that he's been sidelined by injuries at various times throughout his career.
"I never could have imagined this," Del Potro told ATPWorldTour.com. "It's very special to reach that figure (400 wins) after all I've gone through and all the sacrifices I've made."
Del Potro is one player who can say he thought he had reached the end of the road several times, only to find a bend he didn't see coming. The "Tower of Tandil" turned professional in 2005 and values all he has witnessed during this journey as he approaches his 30th birthday and the 10th anniversary of his first ATP World Tour title.
Marcelo Gomez, Del Potro’s first trainer, noticed something in Del Potro from the start.
Match Wins by Argentine Players (Open Era)
|Juan Martin del Potro||400-159|
"From the age of eight, it was obvious Juan was special. He always had the drive to compete and he approaches the game from a different angle," Gomez said. "On top of that, he was passionate about winning; that meant everything to him. Even if it was a game of cards, if Juan was playing, he was playing to win."
Gomez accepted Del Potro into his tennis school, Club Independiente, in Tandil, Argentina, when Del Potro was only six years old. At that time, Gomez was working with young, budding Argentine talents like Mariano Zabaleta and Juan Monaco. Del Potro was a diamond in the rough but it didn't take long for him to come into his own, both in size and in stature. The 6'6'' Del Potro who competes on the ATP World Tour today is a product of Club Independiente's deep talent pool and fierce competitive nature.
"When Juan stepped on court, he was immediately transformed," Gomez said. "It didn't matter who he was up against, or how much bigger or better his opponent was. If his opponent started to raise his game, Juan would raise his game as well. In all seriousness, he's always been really competitive. We've been at airports and almost missed our flights because he wouldn't move if he wasn't winning at Truco (an Argentinian card game).
"What you see today is the same as what I saw years ago. When he was 10 years old, he told me he'd win the US Open one day. Ten years later, he did just that. Juan's got the ability to come back from difficult circumstances and to dig down deep when it matters. He can be in a dog fight, or maneuver past complicated situations."
Del Potro's transition from the courts of Club Independiente to the ATP World Tour stage presented a slew of new challenges. Nothing was handed to the young Argentine, but that didn't matter: He was up to the tasks, and his growth was rapid.
"Juan had it tough when he started playing pro," Gomez said. "It meant he was forced to sacrifice a lot and go out there and compete against the best in the world, outside of his comfort zone. He was given only a few wild cards, so he had to play that many more matches to enter tournaments. It's hard to believe, but all of that just made him stronger."
The pivotal breakthrough came in 2005, when Del Potro leaped from a ranking below 1000 at the start of the year to finish at No. 159 in the world. He claimed his first Futures event in Buenos Aires and earned his first ATP Challenger Tour title in Montevideo.
The Argentine began 2006 the way he left off in 2005 by winning his first match on the ATP World Tour, defeating Spaniard Albert Portas 6-2, 6-2, at Vina del Mar, Chile. Del Potro was just 17 years old.
"That's when things really took off," Gomez said. "He had that win over Portas, then he had a great match against Fernando Gonzalez, a top player (No. 14) at the time. The crowd went wild for both guys even though Gonzalez (from Santiago, Chile) was the home player. Juan's instincts showed right then and he realised that even at this high level, he could execute a plan and impose his will when he wanted to."
At the tournament in Vina del Mar, Del Potro travelled with Pablo Fuente, a fellow player from a city near Del Potro's hometown who was a regular at Futures events and in European tennis club circles. Fuente was collaborating with Gomez at the time and recalls a funny moment that exemplified Del Potro's "never give in" spirit.
"One thing we always remember is that one of his sneakers broke in half while he was at that tournament," Fuente said. "He didn't bring any others with him so we had to fix the sneaker by putting cardboard inside of it to hold it in place. He went out and played both of his matches with the broken sneaker. He's a warrior, but he's also very mature and calculated. I've known him a long time now, and when we talk, I can tell he's thinking things through in a different way."
A few months after his breakthrough at Vina Del Mar, Del Potro made his Grand Slam debut at the French Open, where he lost to 2003 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in four sets. He closed out the year by reaching the quarter-finals at Basel and, at 18 years old, he was the youngest player in the Top 100.
In February 2008, Del Potro began working with Franco Davin, a former pro and coach who guided Gaston Gaudio to a Roland Garros title, and physical trainer Martiniano Orazi, a fitness trainer. They devised a strategy for the talented Del Potro, who was making big moves but was hardly a finished product.
"We decided to build Juan from the ground up, so he'd have a strong foundation," Orazi said. "He already had the lethal power game, but he was uncomfortable when he was on the road for long periods and he was always worrying about his stamina and durability."
Together with Davin, Orazi's work with Del Potro immediately produced the intended results.
"My first trip with Juan was to Stuttgart (in July 2008)," Orazi said, who with Davin guided Del Potro to 18 of his 21 titles, including a major. "Juan won his first (ATP World Tour) title there. Then he won his next three trophies, all in a row (Kitzbühel, Los Angeles, Washington). No one had done that before. Winning made everything else click. It gave him the confidence that he belonged at that level."
After his first taste of victory, Del Potro wanted more. Orazi remembers how motivated his charge was after the triumph in Stuttgart.
"From Stuttgart, we hopped in a car and drive to Kitzbühel," Orazi said. "Juan was focused on two things: winning, then improving, so he could win some more. His training sessions were on another level, and what he did on the practice court, he took that with him on the match court."
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Del Potro made himself known to the world by lifting the US Open trophy in 2009 when he vanquished Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals and dethroned Roger Federer over five sets for the title. Del Potro's fan following grew immensely, and he felt like a local anywhere he went.
"When 20,000 people are chanting your name, yeah, that makes you feel special," Del Potro said.
Almost as quickly as his rise to the top, however, was his descent. By no fault of his own, Del Potro was sidelined by injuries that were out of his control and what was once a promising future was already looking bleak.
"My life changed after I won the US Open," Del Potro said in an interview in 2011. "A few months later my life changed again when I sustained a hand injury. I went from being labeled 'Future No. 1 in the world' to a nobody. Everything happened so fast and I realised that I'm nothing without tennis."
After winning the US Open in 2009, the Argentine missed nearly three full seasons (2010, 2014, 2015), underwent multiple surgeries, toiled through rehab and slipped in the rankings. Del Potro made his first successful comeback in 2011 when he rose from No. 485 in January to No. 11 by December. Injuries struck again a few years later, though, and the setbacks took their toll on Del Potro. By 2015, he was considering retirement.
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"My story is pretty unique; I've been No. 4 in the world twice but injuries cut me down," Del Potro said. "I felt I was a contender for that top spot, and when that feeling disappeared, I almost stopped fighting. I suffered a lot. I felt like I was living in my own movie. Getting out of bed became a chore."
Even if he was giving up on himself, those who competed against him knew a return was inevitable. Federer was one of Del Potro's peers who didn't count the Argentinian player out, even after the last setback in 2015.
"Everything Del Potro does is impressive... from the way he hits the ball to the way he adapts to the game after all of those surgeries," Federer said in an interview in 2016. "It's hard to see him undergo all of those operations for injuries and to know that he wants to be competing when he can't. When he plays, whatever his ranking is at that time means nothing. He's always worth more than the number used to rank him."
Federer's high praise for Del Potro is backed by the numbers. Since his turn in February 2016 at Delray Beach when he was ranked No. 1042, Delpo has racked up wins against the likes of Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and David Goffin. Most recently, he lifted the Abierto Mexicano Telcel trophy -- his eighth ATP World Tour 500 title and first since 2013 -- and returned to the Top-10 for the first time since 4 August 2014. Del Potro is especially proud of what it's taken to get back near the top."I'm back in the Top 10 for the first time in a long time and I'm trying to see the big picture, from a wider point of view," Del Potro said. "It took a lot to get back to this position; it wasn't just one step but a lot of small ones along the way. I keep myself grounded by looking at this photo of myself in Miami during my first return to training (30 September 2015) that last time, and I remember thinking 'I don't know if I'm ever going to play again.' Even in the brightest scenario, I wouldn't have imagined being where I am today."
Del Potro is also proud he's been able to adapt from his injuries and to the current game. With the help of his current team, coach Sebastian Prieto, fitness coach Leonardo Jorge and kinesiologists Diego Rodriguez and German Hunicken, Del Potro has evolved his game out of necessity. He's also taking steps these days to prevent the risk of injury.
I've been traveling with a physiotherapist for several years and I'm taking great care of my health," Del Potro said. "My wrists, especially. They were the big problems. I do preventive treatment and recovery after every training session and every match. I've gone through many operating rooms, many surgeries. My career is a bit atypical to that of other tennis players. But as long as the body holds up and I still want to play, I will continue to do that with great joy and for a lot longer."
After a few false endings and a lot of plot development, Del Potro's saga continues to be a story in development.
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