NEW YORK – “Olé, olé, olé, olé! Delpo, Delpo!”
Seven years ago, that was the fervent chant that raised the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as a shy, gangly 20-year-old standing at 6’6” defeated No. 3-seed Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the U.S. Open semifinals. It was the third consecutive victory over Nadal for Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, whose deep serve and powerful forehand often left the Spaniard befuddled. The next day, the raucous crowd was singing once again, this time as Delpo defeated World No. 1 and five-time defending champion Roger Federer in five sets to win the 2009 U.S. Open, becoming the first player to beat both Nadal and Federer in one Grand Slam, and the first Argentine male to win the Open title since Guillermo Vilas in 1977.
Now, in 2016, the crowds at Arthur Ashe are chanting for del Potro once again, however, this time it’s not for being a champion but for his impressive comeback from the injury abyss.
"I'm trying to play as I did in 2009, but it's not easy because I'm older," said del Potro after his straight-sets second round victory over American and No. 19-seed Steve Johnson on Thursday night. "I think the fans are proud to see me playing tennis again after all my surgeries. They know what I have been through. I'm having great days at the U.S. Open. I am really enjoying the attention from the fans around the world.”
After winning his first and only Grand Slam in 2009, del Potro rose to No. 4 in the rankings and was the youngest player in the Top 10 at age 21. Then came a nasty bout of tendonitis. The pain in his left wrist was so severe that it required surgery, bringing all conversation of del Potro being tennis’s next big thing to a screeching halt. He was sidelined for most of the 2010 season, playing just six matches for the year, and was unable to defend his Open title. He fell to No. 485 in the world, however, he wouldn’t be in the tennis cellar for long. In 2011, he soared back to a No. 11 ranking and was named ATP Comeback Player of the Year. The following year, he took home the bronze medal at the London Olympics and by 2013, was once again ranked in the top five. However, his wrist problems returned with a vengeance, requiring more surgery in 2014 and again in 2015.
“There was a time when all I thought about was the pain in my wrist, “ del Potro said. “Not tennis, not practice, not championships, not rankings. Just the pain. I didn’t feel like a champion. I just felt pain. Last year I thought about retiring, but then thought I would try one more time.”
In February, del Potro played in his first tournament in almost a year, reaching the semifinals of the Delray Beach Open—his first semifinal since 2014—before losing to eventual champion Sam Querrey. The wrist was still tingling a bit, but overall del Potro felt good. Good enough to shock current No. 3 Stan Wawrinka in the second round of Wimbledon in July. Good enough to beat World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Rio Olympics and Nadal in the semis, en route to an Olympic silver medal.
“When I finished the Olympic Games, it felt like the happiest moment of my career, of my life,” he said. “Even happier than the U.S. Open. After the three surgeries to my wrist, after two years without competition and to do what I did, it’s something special for me. It was like a magic feeling.”
Now del Potro—who is the only wildcard, of 16, remaining in this year’s tournament—hopes to keep that magic feeling going as he awaits his third round match against No. 11-seed David Ferrer on Saturday. Despite the odds, one thing is for certain: His crowd of supporters will be there waiting to shower him with a cacophony of Olés once again, to which he is very grateful.
“I’m very proud to get that because I think they admire what I’ve been through to get here,” he said. “It’s amazing all the love I receive from them.”