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Del Potro won a silver medal in men’s single tennis at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
Del Potro won a silver medal in men’s single tennis at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP

Del Potro: more than a wild card

The former US Open winner has made a strong return from injury to become one of the favourites for this year's last Grand Slam

Juan Martin del Potro has a world tennis ranking of 142. He is only 27 years old, yet gives the impression of someone who has been playing at the global level for decades. He has had a series of injuries, surgeries and recoveries. The last tennis title he won was the Sydney International in January 2014.

Yet, at the US Open starting in New York from 29 August, Del Potro has been given a wild card, which means he is not ranked high enough to get a direct entry into the main draw but is too good to go through the monotony of the qualifying rounds.

There are several reasons, though, why Del Potro, like Goran Ivanisevic 15 years ago, can be considered one of the favourites for this year’s US Open.

Going into the 2001 Championships at Wimbledon, the then 29-year-old Ivanisevic had played with an injured shoulder most of the season. The Croatian was ranked 125th in the world. He was given a wild card as a reward for having made it to the finals there three times before—and for arguably being the best grass-court player then not to have won the title. He ended that drought at the tournament.

Del Potro won the US Open in 2009, beating Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal along the way, at the age of just 20. He was touted as the next big thing. But a series of injuries kept him on and off the court, and he dropped out of the top 100 rankings in 2014 after being world No.5 the previous year.

A wrist injury kept him off court throughout most of 2015—he played just four matches all season—and he underwent multiple surgeries. He started playing again from February this year, and not much was expected from the Argentine, particularly after he pulled out of the French Open in May-June. But the results since have been quite dramatic for him.

First came an entry into the semi-finals of the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, Germany, in June, following victories over players in the top 100, including Grigor Dimitrov and Gilles Simon. Then came the most unexpected win—over world No.5 Stan Wawrinka, in the second round of Wimbledon. Del Potro lost in the next round to France’s Lucas Pouille.

But what’s suddenly made Del Potro not just a wild-card entrant at the US Open but also a favourite is his performance at the Olympics that concluded on 21 August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 6ft, 6 inches player beat world No.1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the first round—the lowest-ranked player to beat Djokovic in over five years.

Following a three-set win over Spain’s Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals, Del Potro lost to the eventual winner, Great Britain’s Andy Murray, in four sets in the final to settle for the silver medal. This was an improvement over London 2012, where he won a bronze after beating, yes, Djokovic.

Since the Australian Open in 2005, the bulk of the major titles have been won by one of the big four: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Del Potro is one of only three players—the others being Marin Cilic and Wawrinka—to have won a Grand Slam in this period.

At this year’s US Open, the big four are in disarray. Federer is not contesting due to injury; Nadal hasn’t been at his fittest over the last several months and looks past his prime; Djokovic has looked vulnerable after completing a career Slam at Roland Garros this year; and Murray is showing signs of exhaustion—first while winning his Olympic gold, and then in losing the Western and Southern Open final last week at Cincinnati, US, to Cilic in straight sets.

At his best, Del Potro can match any of the world’s top players—he has all the big weapons needed for pro men’s tennis. In Rio, for example, he fired 29 forehand winners against Djokovic, one of the world’s fittest athletes.

“He’s done amazing, really, to get back to playing and competing again at this level after all of the issues he had with his wrists," the Associated Press reported Murray as saying on Sunday. “Mentally, I can only imagine how frustrating that must have been, to kind of keep going through the same problem and having to try and come back."

Besides being one of the most feared players on the circuit, Del Potro is also one of its most likeable. After the Olympics, the “Tower of Tandil" got a raucous welcome back in Argentina. At the end of their first-round match in Rio, a tearful Djokovic held Del Potro in a warm embrace for a long time—a sign of their deep mutual respect and admiration.

“Delpo was the better player and he just deserved to win," Djokovic said after the match. “He just came up with some extraordinary tennis and I have to congratulate him. I’m glad a good friend of mine, and somebody who has struggled the last couple of years with injuries, is back and playing at this level."

Besides showing recovery from injury, Del Potro has also been gaining in confidence. “I felt once again I had the capability to play against the best in the world," he said after the match with Djokovic. “After everything I’ve been through with my wrist, I also played well with my forehand. When I hit, the crowd was cheering from the stands. I love that. It gives me more motivation. It was a dream night."

Fifteen years after a wild-card entrant played a wildly entertaining two weeks of tennis to win a Grand Slam, Juan Martin del Potro might just match that feat if he plays his cards well.

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