- He has a hammering forehand, a competitive heart and a history of injuries. He's played the role of spoiler at the U.S. Open. Yet Juan Martin del Potro still has the ability to make Arthur Ashe Stadium roar—this time in the semifinals against Rafael Nadal.
NEW YORK – Day after day, round after round, the chatter grew. The unicorn is coming! This is the year! With each Roger Federer escape, each Rafael Nadal recovery from first-set struggles, it became more insistent: Why else would the draw have been so decimated by injury? By Wednesday night it was easy to believe you were hearing hoofbeats, that tennis’ Grand Slam unicorn was galloping ever near, that Roger and Rafa would play, at last, for the first time ever at Flushing Meadow. It just had to be.
Yes, cosmically, karmically—in every way that has nothing to do with actual play—a showdown at this year’s Open made perfect sense. Their parallel revivals in 2017 (Federer won two majors, Nadal had moved back to No. 1) all but demanded it, and the bizarre fact that, in 13 years, they had never met in Queens was a large hole in need of filling. “Something great and amazing,” Nadal said of the prospect. “Fun for everybody involved,” echoed Federer.
Enter Juan Martin del Potro. As much as anyone he felt the weight of that collective want; hell, a part of him would have liked to watch Rafa and Roger play in Friday’s semifinal, too. “Of course,” del Potro said Thursday afternoon. “And I know that people wanted to see that match. But it’s my chance.”
Of course he smiled saying this: The now-familiar Mona Lisa grin, the head bowed because at 6’6” he’s used to talking down to people, the eyes half-lidded. Del Potro’s gentle giant thing is a big reason why, late Wednesday night, half of Arthur Ashe Stadium rang with “Olé-Olé-Olé!” chants that seemed to leave Federer shaken; why the 28-year-old Argentine thrust his arms to the sky after outplaying him, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 and received only cheers; why del Potro could, after killing off one very precious unicorn, be met with a surprisingly widespread love.
Sure, many of those were sporting the Argentina blue-and-white. And some of the 23,771 in the stands had been there in 2009, when del Potro first destroyed everyone’s hopes and dreams by beating Nadal and Federer en route to winning here. And, yes, he had softened them all up in Monday’s fourth round match against a surging Dominic Thiem when, down two sets to love and fluish, struggling to breathe, del Potro mulled quitting, then came back to win the third; then in the fourth sank down again, 3-5, 30-0—only to come stunningly back from that, too. He won in five.
“When you see the match he played against Thiem, you can only love him,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams, late Wednesday. “90%—if not more—of players would have pulled out, would not even show up for that match. He shows up, he cannot play: Two sets, he hits zero winners—Ze-ro! And ends up winning? It’s unbelievable.”
Mouratoglou eyes shined as he spoke; he had wanted a Roger-Rafa semi, too, yet as he watched Federer’s uncharacteristic errors—shanked forehands, shaky backhand, wayward serve—he ended up being glad that del Potro won. That’s because, even as coaches like himself bounce back and forth from court to TV booth, they remain, at heart, coaches. Media and fans would’ve been happy to see a substandard Fed walk out to play Nadal on Friday, but coaches are all about work, quality and results. Coaches don’t care about the best story. They care about seeing the best.
And coaches see past the fact that del Potro, on paper, seems to have had a disappointing career. He has won just that one major title, never mind that four wrist surgeries (three on his left) robbed him of prime years. They point instead to his competitive heart—del Potro has played, and lost, both the longest Olympic match and Wimbledon semifinal ever—and how it’s the equal of any of the more accomplished Big Four of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. “And this comes across,” said Heinz Gunthardt, former coach of No. 1s Steffi Graf and Ana Ivanovic. “That’s part of why people adopt him.”
That, and his game. At 214 lbs. del Potro wields an astonishingly piercing and flat forehand that, when unleashed, is all but unstoppable; combined with agility surprising for such a big man, it makes for a wholly memorable package. “Nobody hits the forehand like that, and his game is very special, technically,” Mouratoglou said. “So he has an identity that is really clear and completely different than any other player. A lot of players look like other players. He looks like nobody. He looks like himself.”
There’s one more current of appeal that, despite del Potro’s halting English, transcends language: Tragedy. When he was five, son of a veterinarian in Tandil, Argentina, his eight-year old sister died in a car accident; del Potro believes she looks over him still. And his career has been marked by a nagging sense of loss: His power is also his plague. This is not unusual. Cuban boxing great Felix Savon, 6'6" and 201 lbs., hit so hard for so long that a calcified ridge—a second row of knuckles—formed on the back of his sledgehammer right hand.
“When he hits it’s too much for his bones to take,” Savon's coach once said. “That’s why he has that ridge: Every time it’s like a bicycle hitting a truck.”
Del Potro suffers from a bit of that. “I hit very hard the ball, so my wrist are very…how you say….under pressure,” he said Thursday. “That’s where my body feels it, on my wrists. I don’t have any back problems or knee problems; it’s just my wrists.”
As a result his backhand yet remains a work in progress, his big vulnerability, though it was quite effective against Federer. But the affliction can only be managed, not cured. “Of course I feel something; it’s never going to be the same after many injuries, many surgeries,” del Potro said. “But I can deal with all that…that pains. And I can play free.
“I feel so, so happy to reach another semifinal in my best tournament, my favorite tournament. And after all my wrist problems, it’s just to enjoy the moment, you know? You never know what will happen in the future. But now…I’m healthy and I’m feeling good—and that’s great.”
How long will that last? Del Potro’s right; it could all end tomorrow. That sense of fragility never quite leaves him, no matter the score; it lends his mighty tennis a modesty that, say, Nadal’s ferocious game lacks. That’s some rare magic. In other words, those still seeking a unicorn shouldn’t despair. Early Friday evening, one big one will step into Arthur Ashe Stadium.