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5 things to know about Federico Delbonis, Argentina's unsung Davis Cup hero

By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Wednesday 30 November 2016
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Much has been said and written about Juan Martin del Potro's fairy-tale comeback, and rightly so: this is a stirring tale of a hero reborn, one who rallied from virtual oblivion to end the season ranked 38th and along the way served up epic exploits that no bare facts or figures could do justice, notably at the Olympics and in the Davis Cup. "After everything Juan Martin had done, everything he's been through, I just couldn't lose." These were the words of Federico Delbonis after Argentina completed their historic run to Davis Cup glory, which was achieved with an unusual cast of characters: they are the first team to capture the title without a top-20 player in their ranks, but had no fewer than four players who won three significant points or more over the course of the competition: del Potro, Delbonis, Leonardo Mayer and Guido Pella. In the wake of his victory in the decisive fifth rubber in the final, which ensured that Delpo's Herculean efforts did not go unrewarded, now is the perfect time to delve deeper into the story of Delbo.

He originally wanted to be a footballer

As is commonplace among South Americans, young Federico Delbonis – born towards the end of the legendary Diego Maradona's golden years (in October 1990, just months after Argentina narrowly missed out on a second straight World Cup) – initially dreamed of being a famous footballer. Besides his nationality, another factor in this dream was undoubtedly the fact that his father, Horacio, was a local footballing hero in Azul, Federico's hometown, where he lined up as a goalkeeper for a number of clubs. It was only natural, then, that his son looked to follow in his footsteps, although fittingly for a lefty– both with a racquet in his hand and with the ball at feet – his preferred position was at left-back.

It was at the age of seven that he discovered tennis – "my dad used to play doubles at seniors' level." What followed next was a well-trodden path: the youngster pursued both sports until the point came when he had to choose to focus on one in order to maximise his chances of making the grade. He plumped for tennis owing both to his superior talent and to the guiding influence of his mentor Gustavo Tavernini, who remains on his coaching team today. He may have stopped playing footie, but Delbo (also known as El Gordo, literally translating as 'fatty' but actually a term of endearment in frequent use in Argentina) remained a fan of Boca Juniors and retained a taste for team competitions: "There's nothing like winning for your people. It's something that you feel in your gut, that tugs at your heartstrings. It's indescribable."

He idolised Gaston Gaudio

The early 2000s bore witness to an extraordinary generation of Argentinian players, albeit one whose haul of big trophies was not in keeping with their vast talent. However, they do at least have one Grand Slam to remember them by: Roland-Garros 2004, the year in which the history books show that there was a player from the country in every quarter-final (Juan Ignacio Chela, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria and Gaudio), three of whom advanced to the semis (Nalbandian, Coria and Gaudio) and two of whom (Coria and Gaudio) contested an unforgettable all-Argentinian final in which Gaudio prevailed in dramatic circumstances, saving match points along the way.

El Gato (The Cat) and his silky clay-court game made a big impression on Delbonis, who was just 13 when Gaudio lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Indeed, Delbo's fondest memory of 2009 is not of winning his first Challenger title in Manerbio, but of when Gaudio, who had dropped down the rankings, "came to watch one of my matches. I was star-struck! It was a childhood dream: my hero had come to see me play." A year later, Delbonis would defeat his idol, also on the Challenger stage: "But he was no longer the great Gaudio. I'd have liked to have faced him during his best years, but whether he's in good or bad form, he's still Gaston."

The Gaudio-Coria showdown at the 2004 French Open is on our list of the top five men's singles finals at Roland-Garros. But what position does it occupy?

Top 5 Men's Finals

He has claimed the scalps of Federer, Murray and Wawrinka

Delbonis has beaten half of the so-called Big Four. The first member of the group he overcame was Roger Federer, in summer 2013. Fresh off being dumped out of Wimbledon in the second round, the shell-shocked Swiss maestro bid to bounce back by signing up for two clay-court events. This surprise move did not pay off, as he duly succumbed to Daniel Brands in Gstaad and then to Delbonis in Hamburg. The Argentine, ranked 114th in the world at the time, edged Federer in two tie-breaks. "I ran like crazy to return everything I could and in the end I won," he reminisced, "I know that he wasn't having the best period of his career, but when Federer tells you that you played better than him, it's something to be proud of. It meant even more to win that match because it came in front of my dad, who for the first time had travelled to Europe specifically to watch me play."

His other victory against a Big Four representative is more recent. It came at Indian Wells this year, against the man who would go on to end the year as the world number one: Andy Murray. Delbonis was one of just seven players to get the better of the Scot in 2016. This was the third major scalp of his career, having outlasted Stan Wawrinka on clay in Geneva in 2015… just a fortnight before the Swiss turned Stanimal and triumphed at Roland-Garros.

Read more: Persistence pays off for summit man Andy Murray

He's a seasoned Davis Cup campaigner

Despite being just 26, he has been a long-standing presence in the Davis Cup picture, although his career in the competition has been somewhat disjointed. Called up for the first time in 2010, as the fifth member of a depleted Argentina squad, he was in contention to serve as a hitting partner for the 2011 final in Seville, only to be overlooked in favour of fellow lefty Facundo Bagnis: with Rafa Nadal, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano López in the mix for Spain, the use of a southpaw was a must.

It was not until 2014 that he finally made his debut, since when he has racked up five victories – all in singles matches – and four defeats in the tournament. All of these successes came in live rubbers: he defeated Thomaz Bellucci and Viktor Troicki in previous editions, while his contribution to this year's conquest consisted of wins over Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini and, saving the best for last, the toppling of Ivo Karlovic in the title decider.

An undisputed clay-court specialist, he has yet to shine at Roland-Garros

Both of Delbonis' ATP titles to date came on the red dust (in São Paulo in 2014 and in Marrakech this year). Even more tellingly, 67 of his 97 match victories at tour level have been notched up on clay (staggeringly, he is still winless on grass). There can be no doubt, then, that Delbonis is a dyed-in-the-wool dirt-baller, yet he has yet to make any real mark at Roland-Garros. Having progressed to the second round in his first year in the main draw, in 2013, when he beat Julian Reister before losing a tight four-setter to Mikhail Youzhny, he has fallen in the first round for the last three years on the bounce (to Dušan Lajović, compatriot Juan Monaco and Pablo Carreño Busta respectively).

There is no shame in those results, but it is fair to say that he has not punched above his weight either and the Argentinian fans – always amongst the most passionate in Paris – are still waiting for the first sparks to fly between him and the hallowed French Open courts. After their recent heroics as team-mates, what price on a Delpo-Delbo doubles pairing taking the Roland-Garros clay by storm in 2017?

Read more: Juan Martin del Potro - The tower of Tandil is still standing

Next Article: Legends - Tony Roche: "And I won this final I shouldn't have played"
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