Three months after leading Argentina to Davis Cup glory, Juan Martín del Potro is returning to competitive action this week to kick-start what he hopes will be a first injury-free season in many years.
Del Potro back again with high hopes
He hadn't been seen on court since his epic victory over Marin Cilic in the Davis Cup final last November, an occasion that culminated with the enduring image of him lifting the iconic silver Salad Bowl. Fresh off this landmark triumph for himself and Argentinian tennis, Juan Martín del Potro decided to take a break. As they say, it is better safe than sorry and you can never be too careful. Whichever proverb you prefer, the giant with the wrists of clay, whose career has been so blighted by injury, elected to lie low, rest, savour his fabulous re-emergence in 2016 and… put himself in the best possible position for a successful 2017.
"I hope to be 100% fit for the whole season," the Argentine said ahead of his return to action in Delray Beach this week. "I'm very happy with how last year went. I only played 12 tournaments and I finished in the top 40. This year is a big challenge for me because if I can play 20 tournaments, I can move up more in the rankings and get closer to playing the top guys." Indeed, while 2016 brought his resurrection, 2017 has the potential to be the year when the Tower of Tandil takes his place back where he truly belongs – somewhere "very, very high" up the ladder, in the words of Gaël Monfils, who practised with Del Potro in Miami. To be more specific, this is a man capable of contending for the game's biggest prizes, as he has proven time and again – despite several operations and lengthy rehabilitation processes – since thrusting himself to the fore in breathtaking fashion at the 2009 US Open, where he romped past Rafael Nadal in the semis before stunning Roger Federer in the final.
Juan Martin del Potro - Roger Federer, 2009 Roland-Garros semi-final: the highlights
The Nadal effect?
For this reason, he opted not to pull out all the stops in December with a view to being ready to go on 1 January, making the tough decision to skip the Australian Open and the entire Oceanic swing in order to instead build up his core, thereby ensuring he would be in tip-top condition when he did eventually resurface. "That's the big difference compared to previous years: I'm returning to action having had a full off-season, in great shape physically and already knowing 80% of my schedule for the year." He also made the most of this 'downtime' – which, for once, was self-imposed rather than enforced – to work on unloading on his two-handed backhand, which he is counting on becoming "a major weapon again, allowing me to mix it up with the slice, which I've really honed in the last few years."
This clean bill of health has been a real luxury for the 28-year-old who, lest we forget, has had to contend with three seasons that have been virtual write-offs (2010, 2014 and 2015), and has undergone wrist surgery no fewer than four times – three on the left wrist and one on the right. It is a record that renders Nadal's own injury ordeal almost trivial by comparison. Speaking of "Rafa", he was the last of the heavyweights to choose to sit out the early stages of a season and instead focus his efforts on peaking further down the line. That was back in 2013 and the move certainly paid rich dividends: the Majorcan amazingly ended the year as the world number one despite his delayed start to the campaign, following a storming run of results capped by victories at Roland-Garros and the US Open. Given that his latest comeback was launched from a much lower baseline, there can be no doubt that the Argentinian warrior – the only man to break the stranglehold of the so-called Big Four at Grand Slam level between 2005 and 2013 – would settle for just one more title of that calibre, at least for now.
Volvimooo pic.twitter.com/EUAi5RFwJM— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) 22 février 2017