Juan Martín del Potro covered his face in his towel. It quickly became clear that this was not a brief cry but a long, messy cry, tears brought on by the pain and the crowd’s support and the pain and the moment and the pain and the sheer injustice of the years of injuries. Trailing his countryman Federico Delbonis 1-6, 3-5, it was obvious the match was over, and with it possibly del Potro’s entire career. Life comes at you fast, and for del Potro, it had sped by on the court in all the worst ways.
Delpo’s career has been characterized by lost potential. As a baby-faced 20-year-old, he became the first man to win a major by beating both Federer and Nadal. Just one player has equaled that feat since (you can probably guess who). In the twelve-plus years to follow, del Potro has been assailed by injuries. He has impressed during his fleeting healthy periods, but the Big Four challenger he once appeared to be has been lost to the ghosts of the hypothetical.
It’s a testament to del Potro’s immense skill that he’s one of just five men (the others are Wawrinka, Čilić, Thiem, and Medvedev) who have broken through the Big Four stronghold to win a major in this era, and what was taken from him is arguably talked about more than what he has. When healthy, he was a privilege to watch, when not, his perseverance was an inspiration.
His latest injury, to the knee, kept him out of the game for another long stretch. Fans were elated to hear about his presence at the Buenos Aires tournament, but the glow turned to horror quickly as del Potro announced his return was more a farewell than a comeback.
Really, it’s no surprise that del Potro returned to the court even physically diminished. “Tennis is my life. It’s my passion,” he said in Spanish during press on February 5th. He knew his time was up, but there was simply no way he was going to say goodbye to his career off-court. He loves tennis too much for that.
The match itself was alternately difficult and joyous to watch. Delpo was incapable of running around to hit forehands from the ad side, but nostalgia crept in as he managed to blast a few comets past Delbonis. Delpo’s body couldn’t sustain his game of old — he could run a bit, but not quickly and not far. His serve and backhand lacked pace. He had obviously put everything into his comeback, allowing himself to fall apart on the court with the knowledge that this was as good as it would get.
Delbonis got trigger-happy with the drop shots, especially once it became clear del Potro was struggling with his movement. Some suggested they were disrespectful, but I’d argue the droppers showed del Potro the utmost respect. However diminished he may have been, he is a legend of the game, and Delbonis decided he simply couldn’t take any chances. I can’t fault him for it. I was watching on TV when del Potro beat Thiem 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4. Besides, a tennis match is a tennis match. Players don’t open the door for their opponent out of respect. It might have sucked to watch the drop shot torture, but neither tennis nor Delbonis exist to be my emotional pillow. He gave the match his all, as I’m sure Delpo would have wanted him to.
Delpo said after the match that he may not be as strong as some people think. I’d argue the opposite. He could have called it quits in 2010. Or 2014. Or 2015, or 2019, or last year. He’s talked about not being able to sleep without pain. His body has betrayed him in pretty much every way imaginable, and yet he’s tried to tame it, tried to bargain with it to let him play the game he loves once or twice more. He’s overcome obstacle after obstacle. He’s revived his career every time it tried to suddenly die on him.
We can focus on the fact that Delpo was robbed of an exponentially more impressive career. But equally salient to me is that while this ending is painful, it also represents a great triumph. Through the brief spells during which his body would oblige his efforts, he did amazing things. He beat Djokovic and Murray at Indian Wells in 2013, then almost beat Rafa as well. Later that year, he dueled Djokovic in one of the all-time best matches at Wimbledon. Five years later, he had an equally outrageous match with Nadal. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Djokovic entered as the world No. 1 and winner of four of the last five majors. On the hunt for his first gold medal, he could hardly have been more motivated. Delpo beat him.in the first round. In straight sets. Not content with that, del Potro went on to beat Nadal in a classic semifinal and gave Murray a hell of a fight in the gold medal match. Unbowed by the loss, Delpo beat Murray in a staggering five-hour, seven-minute match at the Davis Cup a mere month later.
There was one point in that match that I won’t forget. Two points away from losing, Murray locked into wall mode. Three times, he ran down a del Potro missile to the open court and threw up a towering lob just before the ball bounced twice. It was defense at its finest. Delpo, unimpressed, eventually crushed a smash winner. He pumped his fist, totally focused. Then he bashed an ace down the middle to win the match.
In that moment, del Potro was as relentless as a player can be. His forehand may be the purest form of firepower tennis has ever seen. He once hit a forehand winner against Federer at the 2017 U.S. Open that was so violent — Federer’s racket thwacked the court sharply as he tried to reach it — that I worried the Swiss had hurt himself. (It happened when Federer served at 5-all, 30-15 in the first set.)
Somehow, del Potro has managed to blast his world-beating forehand past just about everyone while maintaining an image as a gentle, kind soul. When he slams a 100 mph bomb on the run, his opponents don’t curse the gods and devils they believe in, they look over the net at him and smile. It’s paradoxical and enchanting to watch, but mostly it’s just nice.
Endings are messy, and this is one of the messiest I’ve seen in tennis. What-ifs will rightfully ring out for years to come. Still, I think there’s a happy story in here somewhere, or at least a thread of one. Juan Martín del Potro had every reason to shut down his career years ago, yet he persisted. The great Argentine gave us a vault of memories remarkable in its depth considering how few matches he has been able to play. He walked a glass-littered road with bare feet and covered an astonishing distance anyway. He did it. And now he can rest.