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Juan Martin del Potro - The Tower of Tandil is still standing

By Alexandre Juillard   on   Tuesday 16 February 2016
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Top athletes can have an Achilles heel on any part of their finely-honed bodies. And for Juan Martin del Potro, it is at the end of his arms. After spending nearly a year in the treatment room and having to undergo three operations on his left wrist, the Argentinean is finally back on the ATP tour, at Delray Beach in Florida. The former world No.4, who won the US Open in 2009 and made the semi-finals of Roland-Garros the same year, is hoping to launch his phenomenal forehands onto the circuit once again. Back in 2011, he already made it back into the top after a wrist operation – the right wrist that time – so who would bet against him doing the same once again?

As we write these lines, Juan Martin del Potro’s heart will no doubt be beating a little faster than usual. In a few hours’ time, he will be making his return to the world of tennis in an attempt to get his career back on track. He must be relieved, hungry for success and nervous, all at once. The ATP 250 tournament in Delray Beach, Florida, will give him a good idea of where he currently stands, 327 days after the last time he appeared in official competition, with his ranking almost non-existent (No.1041 in the world on the grand total of 10 points).

Despite being a new beginning, this match is almost a happy end in itself after a horrendously complicated year. After losing in the first round in Miami to Vasek Pospisil, the Tower of Tandil looked like it was going to crumble, and maybe fall. Del Potro spent the first few months after that match wondering whether it made sense to carry on playing despite the fact that he could no longer hold his own against the best in the world due to the fact that his left wrist hurt so much on every backhand, forcing him into hitting a slice on every shot. Doubt had taken root, but he refused to bow to the inevitable until there was no longer any choice. He finally succumbed to the inevitable and went under the knife for a third wrist operation, going back to square one and wondering if he would have any future as a tennis pro.

In June 2015, Del Potro found himself back at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, trusting in the expertise of Professor Berger. "I hope that it’s the right solution and that afterwards, I will be cured once and for all,” he said at the time. “I want to be happy, able to play as I want without this unbearable pain. Since 2010 and the first injury to my right wrist, this is the first time that I am not going to be able to train, either physically or in terms of tennis. My dream is to get back on court and relaunch my career." 

Del Potro knew what he was talking about – after all, he had already been through it all once before. In 2010, it was his right wrist that had forced him to miss an entire season, at a time when he was peaking, having won the US Open, made the semis at Roland-Garros and the final of the ATP World Tour Finals, hitting the heights of No.4 in the world.

All those who spent any time with the Argentinean during his latest rehab are unanimous – he was professional, patient, determined and fully focused on the task in hand. An illustration of this is the fact that he did not put on any weight at all, sticking rigorously to his diet. Every day he had treatment on his painful wrist, as well as getting the best possible training routine, which included a few sessions with the reserve team of his favourite football club Boca Juniors, just to liven up the daily grind every so often.

In terms of tennis, he concentrated first of all on his mammoth forehand – one of the most powerful ever seen in the game – and his big service. And for month after month, he played one-handed backhands, to such an extent that some observers wondered whether he would convert his game in order to take the pressure off his left wrist. Del Potro said that it was never an option, or at least not at the age of 27.

Without Franco Davin, his coach and mentor 

This convalescence and recovery was carried out without the aid of Franco Davin, his coach and mentor for over seven years, after the two went their separate ways in July 2015. Having stuck with his protégé for a good long while, putting his own career on hold, Davin – who had also coached Gaston Gaudio to glory at Roland-Garros – is now working with Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Del Potro is making his comeback at Delray Beach with just a close friend and a physio for company. He is in no desire to rush and will wait to see how the tournament pans out for him before choosing his next coach.

During his journey back to the courts, he had the full support of the Argentinean Tennis Association, and the country’s Davis Cup captain Daniel Orsanic lent a hand for a month. Delpo also turned to Marcelo "El Negro" Gomez, his first ever coach and one of the most famous in Argentina (he was the coach of many others argentinean players, like Mariano Zabaleta and Juan Monaco). He, too, hails from Tandil and knows the player like the back of his hand. "Juan Martin knows full well what the situation is and knows that his wrist will tell him when he’s ready to make a comeback, and not before,” Gomez explained. “When he feels competitive again, he’ll be back. He is as motivated as he’s ever been, and if his wrist doesn’t bother him, he’ll be able to get back among the best once again."

And if his pesky wrist does indeed leave him in peace, it could well be that he is indeed capable of mixing it with the best once again, maybe even sooner rather than later. After all, he has already managed it once before. He finished the 2011 season with a comeback that took him up to an incredible No.11 in the world, having been down as low at No.500 in the world due to his injury. And despite the fact that he has missed so much playing time, the Argentinean is still sixth in the active list of players with the most titles, his 18 putting him behind only older players Roger Federer (88), Rafael Nadal (67), Novak Djokovic (61), Andy Murray (35) and David Ferrer (26). First and foremost, he seemed to be the only player who was capable of challenging the "Big 4" when that quartet was at its most fearsome. "Juan can worry the top players because he has a very important quality in modern tennis, and that is power," said Marcelo Gomez in the ‘La Nación’ newspaper. “And let me tell you, he hasn’t lost any of that power, it’s still there. His forehand and his service are already up to speed. It just remains to be seen whether he will be able to swing freely on his two-handed backhand in the coming months…"

Against Roger Federer, in a five-setter thriller on 2009 Roland-Garros semifinals.

"I can’t wait to get back out on court, make the sign of the cross, look up to the sky and feel the thrill of being out there again”

And so the comeback trail begins at Delray Beach, where Delpo won the first title of the second stage of his career in 2011, after a long lay-off due to the operation on his right wrist. The Argentinean’s fans can still remember his joy after match point against Janko Tipsarevic. He kissed his wrist repeatedly, as if he had finally managed to break an evil spell. Five years later, the Argentinean has no real hope of lifting the trophy and is merely hoping to see where he stands as a tennis pro, and put his body through the rigours of top-level competition and the heat out on court. Oh yes, and to see how his left wrist holds up. And on Tuesday night against USA’s Denis Kudla, Juan Martin will get the answers he is looking for.

"I can’t wait to get back out on court, make the sign of the cross, look up to the sky and feel the thrill of being out there again,” he said. “I want to be able to enjoy it again and I hope to be back playing very well, very quickly, even if the mere fact of being able to come back is a victory in itself for me. I don’t know how many tournaments I’m going to play at the moment. First of all, I need to see how my wrist reacts. I’m going to do it in stages." It will be a long road for the Argentinean to get back to the dizzy heights which he had once conquered. But at least he knows the way...

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