Juan Martin del Potro: A career of injuries and comebacks

Juan Martin del Potro
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Juan Martin del Potro is currently on the road back from three knee surgeries. He is looking to make his comeback at next year’s Tokyo Olympics. For 99% of players, this might be an impossible task. Del Potro however, is part of the elite 1%.

This article looks at del Potro’s long history of injuries, surgeries, and comebacks to try and determine whether he can make the impossible possible one last time.

A Career of Injuries and Comebacks for Juan Martin del Potro

Jan 2006 – Sept 2009: No serious injuries and 2009 US Open champion

From his 2006 ATP debut in Chile at the Viña del Mar Movistar Open, del Potro was able to avoid any serious injury for close to four years on tour.

He did not go through those years completely injury-free, however. Del Potro sustained a back injury at the Rome Masters in 2008 in his loss to Andy Murray. Despite the injury, two months after the Rome Masters, Del Potro won his first title in Stuttgart on clay. He followed this up with three consecutive titles in Kitzbühel, Los Angeles and Washington before Murray snapped his 23-match winning streak in the US Open Quarterfinals.

Whilst 2008 was impressive, del Potro showed he could mix with the best in the business in 2009. He notched his first wins over Murray, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, beating the latter two consecutively on his way to Grand Slam success at the US Open. This took him to a career-high ranking of #5 in the world.

Oct 2009 – 2011: Right wrist injury, surgery and first comeback

Shortly after Del Potro reached the peak of his career, he experienced his first injury in his right wrist at the Shanghai Masters. He was able to get to the final of the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals but came back in 2010 with his wrist feeling worse than ever, perhaps having exacerbated it in one last push before the end of the season. He opted to get his first surgery in May that year, limiting him to two more matches in 2010.

Del Potro took the time he needed to recover. After eight months out of the game, he made a successful comeback in January 2011. He won titles in Delray and Estoril and scored his first win against Djokovic at the Davis Cup. Del Potro won the ATP Comeback Player of the Year award that year.

2012 – 2013: Left wrist niggles and on-court success

The Tower of Tandil continued to raise his game over the next couple of years. In 2012, he beat Djokovic to win the Bronze Medal at the Olympic Games. He also won four titles that year, including a hard-fought win over Federer to take the title in Basel. In 2013, he made his first Wimbledon semifinal and defeated every member of the Big Four, again defeating Federer on home-soil. He added another four trophies to his cabinet.

Del Potro experienced his first signs of trouble in his left wrist in these years, during the 2012 summer hard court season and the 2013 spring hardcourt season. Evidently, the injury did not flare up enough to affect his level of play during these seasons.

2014 – 2015: Left wrist surgeries

In 2014, the injury began to impede his level. After a disappointing Australian Open and retiring in Dubai due to his left wrist injury, Del Potro decided to act. He opted for surgery on his left wrist in March.

The Argentine had not planned for what followed. The rehabilitation period took him until the end of the year. He attempted a comeback at the start of 2015, but the injury had not healed as well as expected. Del Potro underwent a second surgery in January 2015. A couple of months later, he played one match in Miami, but was not happy with his performance, opting for a third surgery in June 2015.

2016: Second Comeback

These setbacks did not stop Del Potro from fighting. In February 2016, he returned to the tour with some adjustments to his backhand to prevent his wrist from aggravation. He posted some solid wins over Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka.

However, it was only in representing his country that del Potro’s hard work truly paid off. He beat Djokovic and Nadal on his way to the silver medal at the Rio Olympic Games, narrowly losing in four sets to Murray. Del Potro was ecstatic: “Now I have a silver medal, which means a gold for me”. Del Potro also played a massive part in Argentina winning the Davis Cup, avenging his loss to Murray in the semifinals and beating Cilic in the final from two sets to love down. An emotional Del Potro said: “Thanks to all those who prevented me from retiring, I was very close to never playing again and, well, here I am.”

Back from the brink, del Potro’s tenacity won him his second ATP Comeback Player of the Year award in 2016, joint most with Sergi Bruguera and Tommy Haas.

2017 – Sept 2018: Slight struggles and a career-high ranking

Del Potro was unable to carry this momentum into 2017, struggling to find the same rhythm on his new backhand as he did the previous year. Before August of 2017, he only progressed passed the quarterfinal stage of his first tournament of the year, the Delray Beach Open.

That changed at the US Open, where Del Potro seems to find his best form. He beat Dominic Thiem and Roger Federer before losing to Nadal in the semifinals. He reached the semifinals or better in three of the last five tournaments he played that year, winning the title in Stockholm.

In terms of ranking, Del Potro’s best year was 2018. He won Acapulco and his first Masters title in Indian Wells back-to-back, having saved championship points against Federer. He made the semifinals and quarterfinals of the French Open and Wimbledon respectively, losing to Rafa at both events. Del Potro then turned the tides on the Spaniard at his second home in New York to make the US Open final, before losing to Djokovic in straight sets. These efforts helped Del Potro to a career-high ranking of #3 in the world.

Oct 2018 – present: Knee injuries, attempted comeback, and surgeries

Just as Del Potro found some of the best tennis of his career, disaster struck. He retired in Shanghai against Borna Coric after falling over, fracturing his kneecap. He was unable to play for the rest of the season.

After some rehabilitation, Del Potro played relatively well in 2019. He had match points against Djokovic at the Rome Masters, showing he was still mobile enough to compete against the best in the game. However, he took another tumble against Denis Shapovalov at the Queen’s Club Championships, prompting him to get surgery on his knee in June. Del Potro has not played another match since. He has had a further two knee surgeries in January and August of 2020.

The Future

One thing is evident from Juan Martin del Potro’s career; the man will do whatever it takes to get himself on-court. Seven surgeries down the line, his tenacity in the face of adversity has been admirable throughout his career. If anything, it seems to add fuel to his fire.

Del Potro’s career suggests he has the game to beat anyone in the world too. He has defeated the #1 ranked player ten times, the most wins for someone who has never been #1 themselves. He has 22 titles overall and has eight seasons with 30+ wins (2008-09, 2011-13, 2016-18).

His motivation and knack for winning have never been in doubt, but this may not translate to feeling 100% physically. Del Potro has made adjustments previously to cover his backhand, proving he has the talent to adapt if necessary. Even with slightly compromised movement, the Argentine is not overly reliant on his defensive game, so perhaps he could still excel. When he came back after his first knee injury, he was moving well enough to push the world #1.

Juan Martin del Potro is looking to make his return at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Even with slightly limited movement, on his day, sporting his country’s colours, Del Potro’s outstanding record suggests he could blow anyone off the court. Any tennis fan with a heart will have their fingers tightly crossed for the gentle giant.

Main Photo from Getty.