Juan Martín del Potro: The People’s Champ

By Owais Majid

I begin this piece with somewhat of a confession. I wasn’t actually lucky enough to witness del Potro in his absolute pomp. While he was on his way to what we now know to be his only grand slam in 2009, the seven-year-old me had not a care in the world for tennis. The start of my love for tennis very much coincided with the peak, (if that’s the appropriate word here) of del Potro’s injury woes. I don’t think I actually watched a del Potro match until the Rio Olympics in 2016, in which he so memorably reached the final. 

Yet, I feel as much a del Potro fan as those who’ve watched his every move since the inception of his career. Because del Potro is a being who transcends the simple fact of chasing a ball and hitting it back to his opponent. He made you care about him the way you would for one of your own children. He made you feel as if he was putting himself through everything just for you.  

In this piece, I want to explore why del Potro is so loved by the tennis watching community, specifically the juxtaposing nature of his tennis and his general demeanour.

On the one hand, there’s this towering, terrifying warrior who would dismiss tennis balls with that famous forehand of his as if he was personally offended by their very existence. Although I can’t visualise the true brutality of said forehand, the sound alone is enough to jerk you out of a daydream, if, for some reason, you fell into a stupor during a del Potro match. In the split second between a del Potro winner and the crowd inevitably reacting with a collective gasp, the lingering sound of that ball leaving his racket strings and ending up on the other side of the court quicker than should be humanly possible is truly mesmeric.

A case in point, that iconic 107 miles per hour forehand during one of his many epics, this time against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2018. Delpo ended a five-shot rally with a brute of a shot, accompanied with a dismissive “ugh” as if he was simply swatting away an irritating fly rather than hitting a shot which left one of the best defenders in the history of the sport stranded. The crowd gasped as if they had just seen a bullet fired down the other end of the court with an accompanying echo of a gunshot, which in a way I suppose they had done. Andy Murray on commentary simply laughed, such was the absurdity of what he had just seen. This was just one of the many occasions on which Del Potro has left us open-mouthed at this incredible weapon that he possessed, the incredible weapon that he was allowed to deploy far less frequently than we’d all have liked.

Delpo sends Djokovic scrambling with a blistering forehand down the line on match point of their first-round match at the Rio Olympics. Screenshot: Olympic YouTube Channel

It’s difficult, therefore, for me to get my head around the concept that this beast who induces gasps of something between terror and awe when he’s on the court, can be so gentle, so softly spoken away from the heat of battle. At the conclusion of the aforementioned tussle with Nadal, in which it seemed both men were willing to battle it out to the death, he embraced his opponent in a manner that was reminiscent of how you’d embrace a loved one. Delpo had been trying to punch holes into Nadal. He’d thrown everything at him for four-plus hours and yet, after all of that, his first thought was to give the man who had just thwarted him in spite of his best efforts a congratulatory embrace full of genuine warmth. 

I can’t be the only one who, from time to time, has wished to deliver that type of a hug to del Potro, to tell him “it’s gonna be all right. Keep your head up, you’re a champion”. It is simultaneously beautiful and heart-wrenching that Del Potro was so often the one who gave those embraces rather than being the recipient of them.   

The other off court del Potro moment which I found particularly moving was his tweet almost immediately after *that* Andy Murray press conference in which he announced he was probably retiring. Del Potro tweeted: “Andy, just watched your conference. Please don’t stop trying, keep fighting. I can imagine your pain and sadness. I hope you can overcome this. You deserve to retire on your own terms, whenever that happens.” 

This message would have been quite nice delivered by anyone, But coming from del Potro, it struck a different chord. This man had experienced for countless years the agony, (both physical and mental) that Murray was displaying to that packed press conference in 2019. If there’s one person that could have truly imagined what Murray was going through at that point, it’s the guy who’d lived that for so long. Delpo would have probably known the impact that his tweet would have on Murray. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to suggest that it ignited some hope in Murray during a time of despair. Here was a man who was proof that despite the misery, there is always a way back. 

This message is particularly apt with the benefit of hindsight as del Potro made one last effort to step onto a tennis court just so he could retire on his own terms, because he deserved to retire on his own terms.  

What I’m getting at here is that Delpo wears his heart on his sleeve to a degree that almost nobody else can. Moreover, when it’s the heart of a lion, it just gets your own heart involved, doesn’t it? 

After his defeat to Federico Delbonis in what is likely to be his last appearance on court, Del Potro delivered one of those tear-jerking quotes that he has become such an expert in throughout his rollercoaster of a career. “The toughest thing to achieve is not a trophy or a ranking position, but people’s love and support. I think I achieved it.” 

I don’t think there’s a single person who could say he hasn’t achieved that, possibly more so than anybody before him, possibly more so than anybody after him ever will. So thank you, Delpo, for taking us on your emotional ride. May your retirement bring an end to your suffering.

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