In the history of tennis rankings, Juan Martin Del Potro has scored more wins over world No. 1 ranked player than any other man who is yet to reach the top spot on the ATP tour.
After Friday night, when top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal retired two sets down in the US Open semi-finals, this unusual stat is now up to 10. The Argentine was leading 7-6(3), 6-2 when he got a hug from Nadal and passage to his second Grand Slam final.
The jury is still out on whether retirements should be considered wins: they are in head-to-head. But the one thing that is agreed upon unanimously is this – no one in the era of “Big Four” deserves Grand Slam glory more than Juan Martin del Potro. The 2009 US Open champion – at a career-high ranking of world No 3 – had a long, arduous, painful journey, but he is finally back to where it all began for him nine years back.
Everyone who follows tennis is familiar with the dramatic story of del Potro’s career. As a 20-year-old, he had astonishingly beaten Nadal and Roger Federer to win his first Major title, and earmarked himself for a greatness. But fate had other plans. He couldn’t defend his title in 2010 with a wrist injury, that would go on to require four surgeries, change his style of play, make him almost give up the sport and define his career for the next eight years.
If there is one player on tour who understands the physical toll of tennis and Nadal’s pain in his retirement, it is del Potro. But if there is one player who deserves a slightly less strenuous path to a Grand Slam final, it is del Potro.
As Novak Djokovic, his opponent in the final, said the Argentine has always been worthy of a spot in the Top Five, if not for the persistent injuries.
“We all felt for his struggles with injuries that kept him away from the tour for two, three years. But he was always a top five player in the eyes I think of everyone,” the two-time champion said.
Not easy against Nadal
On Friday, in the two sets he played, del Potro showed just why Djokovic and the rest rate him so highly. He broke Nadal in his very first service game, but was broken right back after fudging three balls into the net.
The tall Argentine was serving well and hitting his trademark winners, but he lost the toehold he had. Even after Nadal got some taping on his knee, he made the third seed work hard for his points.
The Spaniard was making him play that extra ball and forcing errors and like at Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year, del Potro almost caved in squandering two set points when serving. He was then 15-30 down while serving to stay in the set but went on to force a tiebreak, which he won with an exhibition of strength and smarts.
This regrouping, mentally and physically, is what tilted the balance as he let out a loud ‘Vamos’ after winning the 69-minute long first set.
The second set saw him get two more break points in Nadal’s first service game, after a delicious play where he scored the point of the match (see video.) But Nadal held serve and just as everyone was were getting set for another marathon, the top seed needed a medical timeout and the match was all but sealed then.
However, no one can begrudge del Potro his second Grand Slam final. In fact, it seemed like long overdue given how well he has played this season, this Slam and even in the first two sets of this match.
Always a Grand Slam contender
He won his biggest career trophy, after the 2009 US Open, when he ended Federer’s unbeaten streak at Indian Wells in March. In the months that followed, he was briefly haunted by the old spectre of injuries again – he retired in Rome with a groin strain, withdrew from Queen’s with an adductor injury and missed the Rogers Cup due a left wrist injury.
But at his favourite Major and on the court that made him a star, the “Tower of Tandil” has stood tall so far, from his emotional win over Fernando Verdasco in the second round to his grind over John Isner in the quarters.
And en route the final del Potro has once again shown why he is a Major contender, when fully fit.
He has a ridiculously strong tennis tool chest. His booming serve and monster forehand – famously compared to Thor – are his mightiest weapons. But against Nadal, he thundered down the double-handed backhand as well, the shot he almost couldn’t play, along with the backhand slice, an improvisation he had to learn due to the wrist surgeries.
The surgeries, like it or not, will be a constant footnote in del Potro’s story. But it is the narrative around them, that makes it more compelling.
Take his box of cheering friends, for example. After the second match, he was asked about the group wearing his old kits – the multi-coloured one from US Open 2017, the striped polo from Roland Garros. He joked that we didn’t want to know about that rowdy bunch.
But these very friends, who have travelled from Tandil, are the ones who motivated him when he thought about quitting in 2015, the year he played only four ATP matches and had three wrist surgeries.
He will need all their cheers and chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Del-Po, Del-Po” as he takes on a rampaging Novak Djokovic in a quest for his second Major title.
Djokovic has never lost to Del Potro at a Slam, winning twice at the US Open in 2007 and 2012, Roland Garros in 2011 and an epic five-set semi-final at Wimbledon in 2013. But Del Potro has never played him in a Slam final, not when he is at his 100% like this.
“We have never played in the final of a Grand Slam and he’s playing the tennis of his life, without a doubt, in the last 15 months,” said the Serb.
Maybe “the tennis of his life” will be enough to be crowned champion in New York again, nine years after his ground-breaking campaign.