- Juan Martin del Potro is back in the U.S. Open final for the first time since 2009, after Rafael Nadal was forced to retire due to a knee injury in the semifinal. For the Argentine, it's a sweet blessing after fighting his own injury struggles for years.
NEW YORK – The chant started late Friday afternoon among Juan Martin del Potro’s Argentine friends—a soccer chant, of course, rising from his hometown cadre: "O-le! O-le! O-le! O-le! Del-po, Del-PO!" When they repeated it, there was every reason to think it would stay contained, begin small and end there, with their hero up 6-3 in the first set tiebreak of his U.S. Open semifinal match against Rafael Nadal. Why not? Until then, a good half of Arthur Ashe Stadium had cheered the defending champion’s every move.
Yes, it’s tough to gauge the mood of any massive crowd, its yearnings and its hopes and hates and loves, especially on an afternoon when it has no obvious skin in the game. At the last stages of this particular Grand Slam, with American men—again—not a factor, fan fervor usually loses its rambunctious edge. But then the chant spread, contagious and louder with each syllable, the stands ringing with "Ole"s and "Delpo"s bellowed by 23,771 throats. It sounded like Buenos Aires. Suddenly, del Potro owned the place.
"I felt the energy," del Potro said after his unexpectedly brief, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 (ret.) win. "Almost all the crowd were behind me because, I mean, Rafa was the favorite to win the match. Maybe they wanted to keep watching tennis for a few more hours."
No, that's not it. Fact is, arguably no male player in tennis history has had as promising a career so cruelly derailed—and the Flushing Meadows masses wanted to blow up the narrative. In 2009, a 20-year-old del Potro beat both Nadal and Roger Federer en route to his sole major title in New York; after taking in the Tandil native’s preternatural calm and thunderous forehand, tennis minds had him challenging for Grand Slams trophies for the next decade. Instead, a plague of wrist problems forced del Potro to undergo four surgeries and miss 14 majors. By 2015 he was ranked 581, depressed and, as del Potro said Friday, "close to quit this sport."
Yet throughout all that, del Potro remained spottily dangerous—in the history of the ATP rankings, his nine wins over world No. 1s is the most by a player who never held the top spot—and his struggles never could sour his indomitable, sleepy-eyed sweetness. And though the high-money types who fill the lower bowl and luxury boxes at Ashe Stadium thrill to the Open's celebrity parade, luxury kiosks and Federer's regal air, it's a crowd that also knows plenty about rise-and-falls, setback and failure—or at least the secret fear of it. Every so often, remember, Wall Street has a tendency to crash.
"People know: Here’s a guy who didn’t get discouraged," says Mark Knowles, the coach of American Jack Sock. “Del Potro was next in line to be part of the top group, and that was taken away from him—but here he is: He's reinvented himself. He’s worked really hard. People relate to disappointment. They can relate to him more."
Even Nadal sees a bit of himself in Delpo. It’s all relative, of course—winning 11 French Open titles, and 17 majors overall—hardly can be called disappointing. But it was Nadal’s aching right knee that forced him to halt play after two sets Friday and take the loss; at 32, a dispiriting pattern seems to be gaining speed. When healthy, the world No. 1 remains a near-unstoppable force, as reflected by his 46-4 record in 2018. But he, too, has now missed or retired from nine majors because of injury since 2009, including the 2018 Australian Open because of pain in, yes, that same right leg.
"That's frustrating," Nadal said after. "Is tough for me. Is not about losing—is about don’t have the chance to fight for it. I feel that I fighted all my career against these kinds of things, too. I missed a lot of opportunities. ... On the other hand, I going to keep going and I going to keep working hard to keep having opportunities.
"I know things are going the right way: I am playing well, I am enjoying on court, I am having a lot of success. I am very competitive at the age of 32. Lot of people in this room, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles, fighting for the first position of the rankings. All my career everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I still here.”
Asked if, even it came at his expense, what he feels about del Potro's return to his first major final since 2009, Nadal said, "I can’t say that I am happy because I am not. I will not lie. But, yes, he's a player that went through a lot of issues during his career, like me, too: I know how tough is this thing. I know how much frustration can be when you can't do the thing that you want to do. He knows very well. Happy to him that he's able to be back at his top level. Yeah, wish him the best. For him will be huge if he’s able to win a Grand Slam."
Del Potro insisted that he "will be happy anyways" if he loses Sunday to the on-form Novak Djokovic, who swamped Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, in Friday's second semifinal. There’s little reason to doubt it. After all, del Potro’s stellar play the last two years elevated him to a career-high No. 3 just last month—eight years after his previous high of No. 4. For a 29-year-old who underwent surgery on his right wrist in 2010 and three more on his left wrist in 2014-15, merely playing the final weekend of a major feels like a blessing.
"[I've] been suffering a lot. ... That was the bad moment for me," del Potro said of 2015. "But I think that is completely in the past, and now I'm having a good present, looking forward to the future. I didn't expect to get this kind of emotions playing tennis again. Reaching finals, winning titles, having my highest-ranking ever in this moment: Everything is almost perfect."
Oddly enough, his injuries might be a key reason. During his early breakthrough days, del Potro’s deadly two-handed backhand was nearly all topspin or drive. But when he returned to play in early 2016, after losing nearly two full years of his prime, del Potro’s wrists were so weak that he had no choice but to rely on a one-handed slice.
"It was almost sad to watch," Knowles said of del Potro's return at Delray Beach in February 2016. "Imagine being in his skin; del Potro's backhand before had been great. So for me, it's incredible to see how he’s reinvented his game—slowly getting the [two-handed] backhand back, and I’d say it’s now about 75 percent of what it was. But his slice is 200 percent better, so it’s allowed him to be a totally different player: He can move forward, change pace—and then his forehand is electric. I actually think his game is better now.”
Friday's win over Nadal probably can't be a good measure; there's no telling how ravaged the Spaniard's knee was by his nearly five-hour, wee-hours wrangle with Dominic Thiem in the quarters. But del Potro did display every iteration of backhand, as well as superb movement, in a first set that seemed to promise a replay of this summer’s five-set loss to Nadal at Wimbledon. Then, on serve after the third game of the second set, Nadal called for a trainer and had his knee wrapped. Broken in the next game, limping and wincing, it seemed clear to everyone—except Nadal—that he couldn’t last long.
"It's tough for me to see his suffering and he's not retiring," said Nadal's coach, Carlos Moya. "It didn't make any sense for him to play after the first set, and he wants to continue to see if he can try. He hates to retire. But it's nonsense to keep playing. You cannot get anything good from it, any benefit."
Down 4-1, 30-40 in the second, Nadal argued what he thought was an early call with the chair umpire, but added, “It’s okay. I’m going to retire because I am so hurt on the knee.”
Yet he carried on, even came back to win that service game—and reached a game point in his next one—before del Potro finished him off with one last, electric stroke.
"The hammer: That forehand is a hammer," says Justin Gimelstob, coach of John Isner, who took the first set—and nothing more—in his loss to del Potro in the quarterfinals. "Del Potro is like a hibernating bear. It’s not every point you’re feeling it, but you’re just bracing yourself, because every point he connects it’s jarring. It’s rattling. He’s so composed, but it’s, like, ‘Don’t poke the bear ... Don’t poke the bear!’"
Asked about his chances against Djokovic, del Potro at first seemed to lumber back into his cave. "It will be a difficult match because we are close friends," he said. "For sure we both want to win, but Novak has won the Wimbledon already. He’s playing so good. He will be the favorite to win on Sunday."
Then he grinned his eternal half-grin, and added, “But I don’t know. When I played Roger nine years ago, he was the favorite to win, as well. I will try to make the surprise again.”
He'll have help. Djokovic, twice a U.S. Open champion, has never entered a Grand Slam final with a crowd geared more against him. O-le!