The Juan and Only

By Claire Stanley

I fought back tears when Juan Martín del Potro embraced Andy Murray at the net following their epic Olympic gold medal match in Rio in 2016. There was so much emotion between them in that moment, that it’s hard to believe they weren’t always like that with one another.

My first memory of the Tower of Tandil is – admittedly – not the best. If you’ve read my writing before, you’ll likely have realised by now that most, if not all of it, links back to one man: Andy Murray.

And it’s with Andy that my Juan Martín del Potro story began.

The first time I saw Delpo – who I now know to be as giant in heart as he is in stature – play, was against Andy in the first round of the Rome Masters in 2008. He was 19 and seemed to be full of bravado and attitude – allegedly even trash talking Andy and his mum. I remember watching that match thinking “who does this guy think he is?” And – “WHO is this guy?” Simultaneously.

I couldn’t get over his audacity towards Andy, whilst at the same time being utterly mesmerised by his tennis. He was officially on my list – but I was undecided whether it was my shit list, or my one-to-watch list.

In the end it was the latter. I watched in awe as he won his first ATP title against Richard Gasquet in Stuttgart and back that win up a week later with his second title in Kitzbühel. His back to back titles in Los Angeles and Washington had me thinking he was going to cause an upset at the US Open – before he ultimately lost to Murray in the quarterfinals. But by then, I was hooked.

I loved Andy Murray, first and foremost, above anything else. He was scrappy, grumpy, Scottish, a sore loser – I related to that. I loved Djokovic – shallowly, because when I was 22, I thought he was a “total babe” (his tennis definitely came second back in 2008) – but I loved Delpo because his tennis blew me away. I had no links to him, he didn’t have the sort of fanfare that came with Federer or Nadal at the time, that just encouraged you to support him – he was just another player on the tour. But he wasn’t just ANY player on the tour – he was going to be one of the greats. And every time I watched him play I could feel a bubble of excitement growing in me, getting bigger with each passing shot. This guy who dared to talk smack to Andy Murray might just be one of my favourite players.

I predicted he would win the 2009 US Open to anyone who would listen to me (that wasn’t many) – and when he did, when he achieved what was almost impossible in 2009, beating Nadal and Federer on his way to lifting the trophy, I knew that one day – soon – he would be sitting on top of the world rankings with multiple slams under his belt.

I could never have predicted the injuries that wreaked havoc on his career. In my head it should all have played out so differently: we would talk about the big five – those five incredible players who fought it out between themselves over a decade to win tennis’s biggest prizes, constantly swapping rankings, the year end number one spot always up for grabs as the ATP Tour Finals came around. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, del Potro. Some may chastise me for missing Stan Wawrinka out of the mix, and I mean no disrespect to the great man, but I think in my scenario of Delpo (and the rest, let’s face it, they’ve not all been without their woes) being fully fit for his entire career, as a group they wouldn’t have given Stan an inch.

I count myself lucky to have watched Delpo play at his peaks – in 2009 and again during his resurgence between 2016 and 2018. Rio 2016 will live rent free in my mind forever – I wanted Murray to win that match so badly, and yet I still felt the heartache of Delpo’s loss. He is the only player to ever go up against Andy that I haven’t, in the heat of the moment, despised – even just for a split second. Even when he beat him in that gruelling five set Davis Cup match in Glasgow. There’s too much about Delpo to like to even consider relegating him to the sin bin.

Delpo celebrates a whale of a win against Murray at Davis Cup: five hours, seven minutes, after being down two sets to one. Screenshot: Davis Cup YouTube Channel

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m not really a crier (that’s not the secret, anyone who really knows me will tell you I’ve got a heart of solid stone, it takes a lot for the waterworks to come) – but in 2019 even when it looked like it was all over for Andy Murray, I didn’t cry. Maybe it’s because I knew it wasn’t really the end. I didn’t hear the bell. I refused to hear the bell.

But when Delpo made his announcement earlier this week that he would likely retire after playing the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires I cried. I cried for him, for what he missed out on, and I cried for tennis fans and what they never got to see. The crushing pain and heartbreak was laid out on the table for us all to see, and it was shattering. In his post-match interview he said “maybe I don’t have the strength that everyone thinks I have” – and I would agree with that. Because he has more strength than any of us could ever imagine. He has it by the bucketload. He fought, he endured, he pushed himself to his limit and he achieved such greatness along the way. Imagine what he would have done if he had been fully fit. The tennis world was a better place with Juan Martín del Potro in it.

Delpo deserved so much more than he got. He deserves to have his name spoken alongside the greatest of the game. I wanted so much more for him. But as Mick Jagger once said, you can’t always get what you want. Thank you for the memories Delpo – you really are juan (sorry) of a kind.


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