Juan Martin del Potro’s top wishes? A healthy 2017 – and Davis Cup victory
Juan Martin del Potro reflects on his road to recovery following wrist surgery as he eyes a successful 2017
After a rather tougher encounter with Robin Haase to win his 11th straight match in Basel, Juan Martin del Potro admitted that he would not be playing in the last Masters of the year in Paris-Bercy next week.
His reasons were twofold and simple: “Because I’m exhausted and I need time to recover my wrist… all my body needs time to rest. And I’m looking forward to good preparation for Davis Cup finals.”
Representing his country, it became eminently clear, gives the big man from Argentina both great inspiration and vital incentives, and he has needed both qualities in spades since announcing his arrival among the very best in tennis to win the US Open, two weeks shy of his 21st birthday.
The year was 2009, and in beating defending champion Roger Federer in five sets, he did what no other man had managed since Marat Safin in January 2005 and would not do again until Andy Murray in September 2012: deny a Major title to Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
But early the next year, now ranked No4, he began a catalogue of wrist injuries that would undermine his Grand Slam fortunes, his rankings—and his country’s Davis Cup hopes.
He underwent wrist surgery in May 2010, and missed the rest of the season. In 2011, he made it back to No11, and in 2012 he won bronze at the Olympics, having been part of another epic battle with Federer in the semis—the longest best-of-three match ever—and rose to No7.
But his 2013 run to Wimbledon would be his last until this year after he twice more had wrist surgery that took him out of 2014 from spring through the rest of the year, and for all but four matches in 2015. He only returned this February, and still had to miss Rome and Roland Garros to give his wrist more healing time.
His slow-but-steady return to the tour, though, seemed to work: first he beat Djokovic and Nadal on his way to Olympic silver, then made the quarter-finals at the US Open, followed by a remarkable effort in his longest ever singles match against Murray to take Argentina into the Davis Cup final.
Then last week, del Potro won his first title in almost three years in Stockholm. No wonder his mind and body are screaming for some respite, for he has achieved all this from a ranking outside 1,000, and thus unseeded throughout.
So two-time Basel champion he may be, but that was not uppermost in his mind when he faced the media after his opening win.
“I’m not thinking about if I’m at a good level or not, just trying to improve my game and my physique. Sometimes I feel pain, but I can deal with that. After playing matches in a row in Stockholm, another big match here, and I will play tomorrow, my wrist is OK. My biggest goal for this year is to finish healthy. And if I am still winning matches, will be great.
“This has been a great tournament in the past, beating Roger twice. The place means something special, and I’m so glad to be playing tennis again after all my injuries. I came here with big expectations, but I also have to stay calm, stay focused, try to go match by match, because I am not seeded and not favourite to win the tournament.”
In any previous year, his achievements on behalf of his country would have yielded enough points to boost his ranking and, more than likely, see him seeded last week and this. But now, there are no ranking points for the Olympics or Davis Cup. He found a rueful smile:
“Was a great match against Andy [in the Davis Cup semis]. I didn’t get any points. I beat Djokovic and Rafa and Murray, and I didn’t get any points to go up in the rankings [laughing]. It’s strange.
“I don’t know why they change this year. I would be under top 20 if I got points. To be honest, I don’t care about the points, I don’t play thinking about the rankings, but playing with the Argentine flag on my shirt is very big.
“But this would be easier for me if I was seeded. Last week in Stockholm I played my first match against [John] Isner and now I have second round against [David] Goffin, and it’s not easy for me—or for my opponents as well, I think.”
Lack of points, though, do not dim his desire for Davis Cup victory. Argentina has lost more finals without winning the trophy than any other nation: four times. Del Potro played in the losing final in both 2008 and 2011, and will play when his nation heads to Croatia for another attempt, having played every 2016 tie away from home.
“It’s a very important moment for us and for me. It’s going to be my third final in Davis Cup, and we never could win. [However] my biggest goal is to finish the final without any injuries and with my wrist in good shape.”
It then became clear that, pointless as his efforts at the Olympics were, his successes in Rio were vital to his rehabilitation.
“I started to enjoy tennis again after beating Djokovic in Rio—[smiling] of course! After that was amazing moment, amazing feelings for me, and was a big change in my mind because I started to believe in myself again.
“Every match there was like a final for me. As you know, for an Argentine guy playing in Brazil is special. But they were very respectful with me and I enjoyed a lot, and when I won the silver medal beating Rafa, I think it was the highest moment of the year.”
Reading between the lines, del Potro may not be devastated if he should bow out of Basel without the title—and Goffin, who needs to reach the final to boost his chances of qualifying for the World Tour Finals for the first time, may hope the Argentine bows out in the second round.
Theirs is an intriguing match-up of contrasting styles and power, and only their second meeting. The first was just weeks ago in Shanghai, a win in a close three sets to Goffin.
But win or lose, del Potro has bigger prizes in view. After his last few years, there will be few who do not wish him a first Davis Cup victory for Argentina—or continued health for years to come.