When Juan Martin Del Potro withdrew from the 2015 Australian Open and had to undergo a surgery on his wrist for the third time which would keep him out of action for almost 11 months, not many would have bet on him to come back and beat none other than the rampaging force that Novak Djokovic has become in the Rio Olympics.
Even the diehard fans of the Djoker would not have begrudged Delpo this victory, for it has been a remarkable and noteworthy return to the limelight by the affable Argentine.
But the real question that would have perturbed tennis enthusiasts is whether Delpo is back for real – or is it another false dawn like his return after his first surgery on a troublesome wrist?
The Rise and Fall of Delpo:
Del Potro looked set for stardom following his stunning US Open victory in 2009, which not only made him the 5th youngest man to win the US Open in the Open Era (at the age of 20) but also the first player to beat both Federer (final) and Nadal (semi-final) in a Grand Slam.
For both the behemoths were arguably at their peak at the time and even Djokovic and Murray had not been able to match that feat. He rose to No.4 in the ATP rankings the following January but would suffer a body blow when he injured his wrist in the run up to the 2010 Australian Open.
Though he played at Melbourne, He had to undergo an operation in May and only returned after a nine-month break in 2011 which saw his ranking plummet to No.485.
But slowly but steadily he rose up through the rankings and finished 2011 at No.11 and was named the ‘ATP Comeback Player of the Year’. He would then go on to win bronze in the 2012 London Olympics and a solid 2012 and 2013 would see him break into the top 5 before he injured his wrist again in a match against India’s Somdev Devvarman in Dubai, 2014.
He would miss the rest of the season. Though he attempted to make a comeback again, he was forced to withdraw from the 2015 Australian Open and undergo a third wrist surgery in June that year. He would not play again until February 2016 at the Delray Beach Open in Miami.
How did he fare?
When Del Potro returned this time with a surgically impaired wrist that had failed him thrice already, there were question marks on whether it would hold up again or whether they could still generate those famously booming forehands.
The Gentle Giant was languishing below 1000 in the ATP rankings and at the time, was written off by many as just another promising player ruined by injury. The fears were not unfounded as he had rushed his comeback in 2015, which led to his third injury.
But he went on to reach the semifinals of the tournament, winning 3 matches before losing to eventual winner Sam Querrey. Judging by the result, his return was nothing but a success. His forehand looked crisp and still packed that punch which made it one of the most feared one on the circuit in his prime.
But his backhand was not what it once was. A powerful two-handed backhand had become a feeble one-handed slice and an obvious weakness. Delpo was seen moving around the ball to take it on the forehand at times.
He would acknowledge that it was still a work in progress – “I still need time to feel 100 percent with my wrist. Sometimes I’m scared to hit harder with my backhand. You can see it’s not as hard as before. But every day it’s getting better.”
With the confidence attained from that outing in Miami, Delpo went on to play several tournaments in 2016 before deciding to skip the French Open in order to prepare for the grass court season. Delpo would go on to announce his comeback in style by defeating the 4th seed Stanislas Wawrinka in 4 sets in the 2nd round of Wimbledon and fittingly on Centre Court.
“I feel alive again”, he gushed, only months after he had contemplated retirement.
Yes, there were still questions regarding his backhand with which he had hit just 1 winner in the match. But his forehand seemed to be more powerful than ever.
Though he lost in the next round to Lucas Pouille of France, his greatest comeback act was yet to be unveiled. The stage? One of the biggest possible – the Rio Olympics of 2016, and the opponent none other than Novak Djokovic – in the first round of the men’s singles.
A solid and surprisingly composed performance, coming hours after being stuck in an elevator for about 40 minutes, left the World No.1 in tears and the audience stunned as he lapped up a 7-6, 7-6 win over the best in the sport
What Next ?
Del Potro himself knows he is far from his best and needs a bit of fortune with his wrists and much hard work to get back to the beast that he was.
He will take solace from the fact most tennis fans will be glad to see him back, for the Gentle Giant is universally loved for the way he conducts himself on and off the courts. An explosive stroke player himself, he is known to applaud his opponents’ shots and always greets them at the net with a hug (forget the handshake).
Most importantly, the confidence seems to be back for Delpo after the win over Djokovic (which in itself is a huge achievement these days). The sport will definitely be richer with the return of the 27-year-old.