Juan Martin Del Potro: The People's Champion
Down two sets to love and battling fever in his round of 16 clash against Dominic Thiem at the US Open, Juan Martin Del Potro was losing belief in himself. The situation seemed irreversible and his body was once again failing him. Self admittedly, thoughts of retiring were taking root in Del Potro’s mind.
He had no energy left. But the Grand Stand crowd at Flushing Meadows had not lost belief in the burly Argentine. Every winner he hit was met with loud cheers, every time he was about to face an important point the crowd chanted his name. Somehow Del Potro began to feed off this phenomenal energy from his fans. His serves regained their sting, the blistering forehands started finding their spots.
And egged on heavily by the crowd, Juan Martin Del Potro staged another improbable comeback to defeat Dominic Thiem in 5 sets, even saving two match points on the way. His victory was met with such a deafening roar that Roger Federer heard it all the way at Arthur Ashe stadium. Roger Federer who has pretty much seen it all when it comes to tennis, said he had experienced nothing like it. Such is the adulation the soft spoken Argentine evokes in his fans.
Every once in a generation, a sportsperson comes along that elevates their sport simply by playing it. Juan Martin Del Potro is that guy for tennis. His allure transcends titles and rankings, and is built upon the numerous epics he has played, his on court demeanour and his tragic tryst with injuries.
His imposing physical appearance provides a sharp contrast to his quiet, gentle personality on court. When he fires that ball flattening forehand winner he does not erupt in flamboyant fist bumps, instead he quietly walks back to get ready for the next point. When he misses a painfully simple volley he does not gesticulate and admonish himself, he walks back and gets ready for the next point.
In fact, he gets so stoic at times that nobody really knows at times whether he is pumped up or discouraged. But every time Del Potro fails to display emotion, the crowd pines for it even more. Soon it’s the crowd that responds to his winners with fist bumps, it is the crowd that groans when he misses an easy shot.
And those rare instances when he does let out a guttural scream after belting a winner usually at a pivotal point late in the game, it gives you goosebumps. Or when his shoulders droop and he looks up at the sky in disappointment, it melts your heart. Somehow this man gets the crowd to play the match alongside him!
A 20-year-old Juan Martin Del Potro had become a household name when he beat Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals and Roger Federer in the finals at the 2009 US Open to win his first grand slam tournament.
He was the first player to defeat the two all-time greats in consecutive grand slam matches. At the end of the tennis season in 2009, the tennis rankings read:
1. Federer 2. Nadal 3. Djokovic 4. Murray 5. Del Potro; with the Argentine being the youngest among the five. It seemed at the time that tennis would be ruled by a big 5 for years to come. But a series of successive wrist injuries derailed the promising Argentine's career. And herein lies another factor that I believe contributes to his popularity.
When the crowd watches Del Potro play, they see not only what is but also what could have been. Everybody loves a tragic hero and when this one is also a light-eyed, soft talking gentle giant who is also a perpetual underdog, one simply cannot help but wish the best for him.
After he pulled off another unlikely victory over Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, he was asked how it felt to beat Federer in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which like many others all over the world was like Federer’s home. “Well it’s my home too!” came the reply. As he now looks to repeat his 2009 heroics against Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals with the odds stacked against him once again, one thing he can bank on is that the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium will have his back!