Juan Martin del Potro made his splash at the U.S. Open two years ago when he rallied to upset Roger Federer in the final and win his first Grand Slam title at age 20. The 6-foot-6 Argentine became the first man to beat both Federer and Rafael Nadal in a major as he flashed a frightening combination of fearless power and surprising movement for a player his size. A freak of nature in the best possible way, del Potro stood on the precipice of being the next guy on whom people could count to break up the Federer-Nadal duopoly.
Of course, as so many of these stories go, that's not how things unfolded. Del Potro sustained a wrist injury that required surgery and sidelined him for eight months in 2010. Questions swirled about whether he would ever play again and, even if he could, whether he could be the same player who struck fear in the hearts of the game's best. His tour return last fall in Bangkok was a "stay-up-into-the-middle-of-the-night-and-find-a-stream" event for tennis fans. He lost his first-round match, but the chorus of cheers and relief at the sight of him back on a court showed how much he is beloved.
After a slow-building 2011 in which he's won titles in Delray Beach, Fla., and Estoril, Portugal, while getting back into the top 20, del Potro returned to the place of his greatest triumph somewhat under the radar. He's quietly cruised through his first two matches at the U.S. Open, including Friday's 6-2, 6-1, 7-5 victory against fellow Argentine Diego Junqueira. Del Potro will face either Gilles Simon or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the third round.
“I know that other players are playing much better at the moment, especially the top 10 players,” he said. “But I repeat: To be here playing this tournament, it’s a great signal for my future. I know I’m getting closer to my best level, and that’s important.”
A constantly improving DelPo is a scary DelPo. He gets tremendous crowd support in New York and, even though you wouldn't know it based on his sometimes hangdog expression and lethargic meandering between points, he feels the love and feeds off it. Even Friday, at 5-5 in the third set, he motioned for the crowd to get louder.
"I'm really enjoy the crowd, the fans are crazy, and they are very excited," he said. "The crowds are full every match. That helps me to fight. I remember in the final two years ago when I was two sets to one down and they help me, started cheering more for me than Roger, and that helped me a lot to win." Asked about his Open breakthrough two years ago, del Potro said: "To be honest, I feel like the final was yesterday, because when I was walking around the street or when I talk with the fans, they say, 'I remember your final. You can repeat. You can win again.' ''