Juan Martín del Potro: the evening of retirement, as imagined by a fan

By André Rolemberg

This is a narrative piece telling how I imagine Del Potro’s moments after he got home from his last match. In a sense, you could call this “fan fiction.”

It was just another day in the office. Getting up and ready to practice, match taking place at night — a first round. Wild card. He’s been dealing with injuries for some time, but now he’s ready to go back and play again. He wanted to believe that. So badly.

But the knee pain was hard to forget, and an unwelcome companion at this stage in Juan Martín del Potro’s career — no, in his life.

The match went on. “Maybe I’ll get a chance. My forehand can still do damage,” he thought. But a chance he did not get. Alas, the world does not stop for anyone. 

Federico Delbonis was not ready to succumb to his own emotions to let such a dangerous player, the 2009 U.S, Open champion over 5-time defending champion and all-time great Roger Federer, take control of the match. An idol, a legend in his own country, Delbonis knew all too well who del Potro was. Well enough, at least, to finish that match as soon as he could. The booing was inevitable unless he lost. A quick match is the only way now. 6–1, 6–3. 

No one will know if being the executioner was greater pain for Delbonis than the knee problems were for del Potro. Surely no pain was greater than saying good-bye in that manner, though.

*****

It was night. 

The moment was not yet fully comprehensible in del Potro’s mind. The facts are easy, but the body can’t quite grasp it. It still feels to the Argentine as if he should call his coach. Discuss the match today. Assess the tactics, strategy. Talk about the pain. Schedule time for tomorrow’s practice. All a shadow of the days past. A ghost of his career, hidden in the past, in the many pictures of fist pumps, forehands, trophies. 

It was quiet.

Quite a contrast from the lively crowds just a couple hours ago. Trading the roars of thousands of fans for a rhythmic ticking of the clock was not yet something he was used too, probably because the crowds were never coming back for him — or was he the one never coming back to the crowds?

It was funny, he thought. The people chanting his name, the noise in the stadiums was the epitome of the moment. It was right here, right now. Do or die. Now, the clock ruthlessly announced the time passing, unfazed by his achievements, unmoved by his tears, no signs of fear from Delpo’s forehand. Never once has it changed its pace. Momentum was not to be stolen from it.

That man lived in the past, capable of running for hours, bearing the pain of his aching body, playing a sport that only counts time for the sake of a mere curiosity. Tennis is not interested in how long it takes for anyone to end a match. Tennis only presents you with a goal — it is up to you how long it will take to get there.

Anyone now will be able to see the man del Potro once was. His focused eyes, his energy, all wonderfully recorded in thousands upon thousands of pictures, endless hours of videos of his wins and losses. A man he struggles to remember, if he is being honest with himself, lost in the thought process of a life away from the courts. 

However, they are all there.

His memories.

His trophies, sitting in the silent room dedicated for these important moments of his past life. Up from the couch, Del Potro makes his way, half aware of his own motions and motives, to the trophy room. His steps echo in the hallway, the light bulbs seem to barely give away any light, as if in shame: who are they to shine a light upon this man, who has been under the powerful and iconic lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, the biggest tennis arena in the world?

Once there, a look towards them. One ATP Masters 1000 trophy, earned under the scorching Californian sun at Indian Wells. Another, under the weight of a nation, Argentines’ deafening screams during a Davis Cup final. And the smooth-sliver cup, taken away by brute force during that night session at the US Open, a night that, without this memento, he could very well trick himself into believing it was just a fever dream.

He shook the dust off the U.S. Open trophy. Taking the life-size replica of the original, del Potro, by instinct, lifted it up to the skies, as he did for the first time in 2009. 

Suddenly, it was not a trophy room anymore. It was not a dim, yellowish light bulb. It was not a tick-tock of the clock. It was Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was the powerful spotlights, it was the wonderful and unique sound of crowds saying his name louder and louder. It was a tennis court somewhere in the world, everywhere he has ever set foot. It was an indoor court with its lighting disposition unique to the arenas where he played, it was an outdoor court, the most powerful light source on planet Earth, the sun, shining its burning light onto his head as he lifted that trophy, all the titles in his career, all in that one moment.

The iconic moment from 2009. Screenshot: U.S. Open YouTube Channel

It was the end of his career indeed. But no man knew his memories like he did. No one could relive those moments like he could. He alone was Juan Martín del Potro.

He closed the door to the trophy room as he exited. His characteristic shy smile was on his gentle face, now not gloomy with his last-ever defeat but shining as if all the lights were still on him, was one of his most significant ones. No one was there to take a picture this time. No journalists awaited outside that room. But Delpo would remember this moment for his whole life, now a life he was ready to face outside the tennis courts, but, he was sure, not too far away from them.

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