As Juan Martin del Potro retires from tennis, the sport has lost one of its most exceptional characters, and in the cruelest of ways.
We don’t know for certain if his loss to compatriot Federico Delbonis in Buenos Aires last week will be his last match, but the writing seems to be on the wall. After two and a half years out due to a knee fracture that he described as “a living nightmare,” his return to Argentina’s capital did not feel like the start of one final comeback in an injury-plagued career.
Instead, when he hung his trademark bandana across the net, it was the last touch to his emotional goodbye, made finally on his own terms.
A career of huge potential
If it is the end, then he can leave with his head up high. His achievements are superb. His 2009 US Open triumph made him the only man outside of the “Big Three” to win a Major between the 2005 French Open and Wimbledon in 2012. For his country, he won two Olympic singles medals and led Argentina to victory in the 2016 Davis Cup–the first in their history. He won the prestigious Indian Wells in 2018 and returned to the final of US Open in that same year, losing to Novak Djokovic.
Yet his legacy in tennis goes further than his titles and trophies, impressive though they are. A favorite among the fans, the 6’6″ “Tower of Tandil” has been the quintessential gentle giant, a brilliant competitor who was equally as popular for his endearing charm and charisma as for his explosive tennis. And wow, was it explosive.
Watching a del Potro match could be like a blockbuster movie, not just because of his thunderous forehands–perhaps the most destructive weapon in tennis at his peak–but because of the emotional highs and lows that he could produce.
When he played, his every feeling was painted on his face, and whether he won or lost, he dragged us along for the ride with him. Every break point that he saved was somehow a little more impactful, every one of his laser forehands that bit more exhilarating.
Even in the biggest moments, he never lost his human touch. During a 2017 match at Wimbledon in temperatures of over 30c, del Potro came to the aid of an ill fan, passing her water as she received medical attention in the stands.
His likability is a one of many reasons why his retirement, aged just 33, is so hard to accept. No one wants to see players injured at any time, but there was something especially distressing about del Potro’s endless streak of injuries. In what should have been his prime years, “Delpo” would face months and sometimes whole seasons away from the court, undergoing surgeries and constant rehabilitations. It wouldn’t be fair for anyone–but it was especially unfair for him.
Juan Martin del Potro: Injuries and comebacks
The first of those injuries came in January 2010, months after his win at Flushing Meadows and just after he’d reached a career-high ranking of #4. He would not return until October that year, starting a pattern that repeatedly interrupted brilliant and intense periods of on-court success with agonizing injuries and extended absences.
A successful comeback in the 2011 season was followed by an Olympic bronze in 2012. There, he lost a classic semifinal against Roger Federer–the longest best-of-three-sets match in history at the time–and took victory over Djokovic in the bronze medal match.
His return to London at Wimbledon in 2013 was almost as memorable, culminating in a classic five-set semifinal against Djokovic in one of the best Grand Slam matches of recent years.
Then the injury nightmare returned. Wrist surgery early in 2014 kept Delpo out for almost the entire season, and just as he returned in 2015, he was forced to go under the knife again for the same problem, missing another year.
2016 arrived, and it was back on the comeback trail again. Victories over Djokovic and Rafael Nadal highlighted his silver medal campaign at Rio’s Olympics, and then there was that Davis Cup Final.
In one of his greatest wins, he came back from two sets down for the first time in his career to conquer Croatia’s Marin Cilic, paving the way for Argentina’s maiden win in the competition. Tellingly, even there he faced injury problems, breaking a finger during the match.
The next two seasons came and went successfully until the 2018 Shanghai Masters, where he fractured his knee for the first time. Eight months later at Queens in 2019, he re-fractured that same knee, prompting an admission that his career could already be over:
“If that match was the last of one my career, I don’t know. During rehab I will be able to think clearly. I will know what my body is able to do.”
The toll from that injury has been especially heavy. Fixing his knee has required four surgeries, adding to the four total wrist surgeries from earlier in his career. Time after time, he has fought back and relit the flame that has made him such a standout figure in tennis. This time, it was too much to overcome.
Though he may have bowed out with a loss, in returning to Buenos Aires, Juan Martin del Potro completed a personal victory. He has left the court just as he wanted, in front of an Argentinian crowd to whom he gave so much. It’s the very least the Tower of Tandil deserved.
Main Photo from Getty.