The fable of Juan Martin del Potro

By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

At first, it seemed like good news when it emerged that Juan Martin del Potro would be making his way back to the competitive circuit, after almost three years of absence due to his injured right knee. Given that a couple of tennis old-timers are still out of commission because of post-injury rehab, the Argentine’s return was a feel-good story. However, there wasn’t much to feel good about a while later. Del Potro made it clear that being back on the tour was “more of a farewell than a return.”

That abrupt twist took a while to sink in, although once it did, it didn’t take long to process it in our minds.

So there it was, the reality that Juan Martin del Potro, who had defied the trysts his destiny had made with his career, was finally ready to let go, while he still had the wherewithal to do so on his terms – one more act of defiance, so to speak.

Del Potro’s match against Federico Delbonis at the Argentina Open in the capital city of Buenos Aires amply reinforced this trait of the 33-year-old. The match’s result might’ve been a foregone conclusion both in terms of the result and the reality that it delivered to del Potro. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop either player from doing what he had come out to do. Although Delbonis received flak from some corners about using the drop shot extensively against someone whose physical fitness wasn’t 100%, the idea of not playing at 100% would have been contrary to the spirit of sportsmanship that his compatriot and the rival of the day deserved.

Accordingly, there’s a lot more that del Potro deserved in his career but didn’t come to fruition. This doesn’t mean a greater number of titles, more appearances in finals and better margins in head-to-heads, but rather a string of constancy that stretched from one match to another, one tournament to the other, one season to the next, for a number of years. The graph of his truncated and repeatedly injury-marred career will forever remain a case study in how much he deserved the good lot that eluded him and how he still achieved the peaks that made him memorable as a competitor on the tour.

In the days to come, when reminiscing will occur about del Potro, that last note ought to be acknowledged as the one he deserved the most and one which rightfully came to him. When nostalgia abounds about del Potro, any celebrative hindsight should remain centred on his successes than on the misses.

This would mean looking back – in the same vein – at all the matches he’s gotten to play without assigning much weight to the results themselves. Then, reflecting on the highs: from his first career title, at the 2008 Stuttgart Open to his last, in Indian Wells in 2018, and to his rise as the World No. 3 later that same year. Likewise, it would also mean being content about his lone major, at the 2009 U.S. Open and the two Olympic medals he won: bronze at the 2012 London Games and silver at the 2016 Rio Games.

If tennis, like any other sport, is emblematic of the numbers game, del Potro did have quite a hold on the numbers. But as with other sports, tennis’ fascination with seeking correlative symbolism in how well one of its players’ numbers matches up to that of the rest, often brings about a deceptively parallel reality. This, in turn, downweighs the player’s accomplishment and brings them into focus solely in the prism of comparison.

In case of the Tandil native, tennis needs to make an exception in not looking for comparative validation vis-à-vis his career or to bind it in clauses that put his injuries at the forefront rather than his indefatigable spirit.

This, too, would be undeserving for the sportsman that Juan Martin del Potro was.

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