The Boodles 2018: Juan Martin del Potro admits, ‘I am enjoying my new career’
A regular visitor to the he Boodles event has been world No4 Juan Martin del Potro
This luxurious corner Buckinghamshire, Stoke Park, is just a stone’s throw from Slough but also a million miles away. It is a gorgeous retreat, a gleaming white hotel surrounded by golf courses, parkland, and a sweep of some of the best grass tennis courts in this neck of the woods.
As their promotional website puts it, “The grass courts are Wimbledon specification, the hotel is five star, the spa is award winning… “ and that is just the start.
No wonder the elite of tennis have often chosen The Boodles event to hone their competitive juices in the days before Wimbledon. Andy Murray has been here, so have Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova and Andre Agassi.
And a regular visitor has been world No4 Juan Martin del Potro, winner of the US Open in 2009, an Olympics silver medallist, winner with Argentina of the Davis Cup, and this year regaining the No4 ranking for the first time since, age just 20, he broke the top four in early 2010.
His backstory is well known: four lots of wrist surgery through five years, and repeated successful returns to the tour. But the last 12 months in particular have warmed the Argentine’s heart and the hearts of one of the biggest fan bases in tennis.
He reached the semis at the US Open last autumn for the first time since he went all the way to the title. He reached the semis at Roland Garros, again for the first time since that remarkable 2009. And he won his first Masters title, and no ordinary Masters at that. Indian Wells is one of the biggest and most demanding in the calendar, and he beat defending champion Roger Federer in one of the matches of the year so far, a two and three-quarter hour three-setter.
At The Boodles, he played his first match on grass this year, having pulled out of Queen’s last week. And young American Taylor Fritz pushed him all the way to victory via a 15-13 deciding tie-break set—and in sweltering 32C heat. So how was he feeling?
“I feel good, it wasn’t bad. I had good movement on the grass. We played a couple of good points during the game, and I still have time to get ready for Wimbledon. I feel in good shape, my game is adapting to the grass courts.”
And what of his decision to bypass Queen’s?
“I decided to stay at home, prepare for Wimbledon, and I had a great time with family, with friends, and also great preparation for the Grand Slam, and I think I will be ready to play a few matches.
“But I know how tough are the rest of the players on tour—[smiling] I will see what I can do.”
There must have been times when he thought he was fated never to regain his place in the sport he loves so much—certainly not at the level he hit almost a decade ago. And he was mixing with the ‘big boys’ throughout 2009: a remarkable three-and-a-half-hour five-setter with Federer at Roland Garros; two and three-quarter hours against Andy Murray in the final of the Montreal Masters, having beaten Rafael Nadal in the quarters; and then the rare double of back-to-back wins over Nadal and Federer in New York. He ended the year as runner-up at the World Tour Finals.
But two matches in excess of four hours at the Australian Open did their worst. He would play just two more matches in 2010.
He told me:
“Yes, I never thought that I could play in this level again after all my wrist problems. But now I am enjoying it, and keep surprising myself in every tournament, and I have one of the best connections with the fans at all tournaments. I think you can see when I play that it is something special with them, and they make me feel so special even if I lose.
“And I don’t know care now about rankings, about if I’m playing better or worse than a few years ago, I am enjoying my new career.”
Perhaps, given his success this year—and he beat three top-10 players to win the Acapulco title, six more matches to claim Indian Wells, and then five more before losing to eventual champion John Isner in Miami—he was disappointed that he would arrive at Wimbledon as the No5 seed courtesy of the rejigging of the ranks according to the grass Major’s unique formula. The boost of Marin Cilic, finalist at Wimbledon last year and winner in Queen’s last weekend, shunted del Potro out of the valuable top-four cut-off.
“They do [the formula] every year. This time it happened to me. Good for me if I’m in the top four because I could play with the top guys in the semi-finals.
“But they moved Marin Cilic to No3, and he deserves also to be there because he’s a great player on grass, and he made the final last year. So I agree with the move, but if I want to be top four, I have to play even better next year.”
With a rueful grin, he bid his farewell and ambled off into the sunshine, but not before a shout-out to the fans who have buoyed him up through all those troubled years, and at Wimbledon as much as anywhere.
“I have fantastic memories from the England fans: they call me Del Boy! And I also played great battles in Wimbledon a few years ago when I reached semi-finals against Djokovic, and when I lost in the semis against Roger at the Olympic Games.
“And every year is special. I have a very good connection with the fans, and I’m so happy with that.”