The return of Juan Martin del Potro was beginning to read like Aesop’s fable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” False alarms sounded in Sydney, the Australian Open, and Indian Wells – all tournaments the Argentine was supposed to have played.
On Thursday, he attempted, once again, to compete: this time at the Miami Open in a first round match against Canadian Vasek Pospisil.
It wasn’t pretty, and that’s all right.
Del Potro, currently ranked No. 616, was rusty – and should’ve been rusty – unless he was somehow superhuman. But that was ruled out long ago and prior to three wrist surgeries. Pospisil did what was expected of him against a rusty player.
He won the match, 6-4, 7-6(7).
Del Potro’s footwork was slow, and his stutter steps mistimed. His serve popped at times, but fell apart at the end of the first set enough to get broken and lose it, 6-4. His massive forehand remained formidable, but so was Pospisil’s.
Time does not stand still.
You had to wonder what went through the mind of the 6-foot-6 Tower of Tandil as the match progressed.
“Mentally, you must be strongest enough to deal with the problem and get up every morning to do your treatments and rehab and stay calm,” he said, afterward. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes me to be in the top again.”
Prior to his first match, he sounded humble. No longer was he interested in winning the tournament; he just wanted to compete. He didn’t want to climb to the top three in the world; he wanted to string a few matches together. Quite clearly, he has missed competition.
“I couldn’t play tennis, and that’s my love, my passion,” he said, as reported by Kamakshi Tandon of Tennis.com. “I saw everybody working on his job, doing what they want to do and I’m home trying to fix my wrist.”
The man has been served a rotten deal with his wrists; some problems were probably genetically mastered, while others are due to wear-and-tear by a game that has increasingly relied on a quick wrist snap at ball contact, and power generated off poly-string beds.
“I’m okay,” Del Potro said, after his match. “I don’t have any physical problems; and, I will be recovering soon for the future.”
Del Potro broke Pospisil in the opening game of the second set, and held on to it for dear life. There were moments of brilliance from the 2009 U. S. Open champion, which the crowds appreciated in a rather calm way. Maybe they were nervous for their man, tentative to explode with joy until the right moment.
…If one was on its way.
Del Potro showed frustration, too, looking as if he wanted to destroy his blacked-out Wilson racquet. He’s trying new sticks because he had to give up on the K-Factor he’d used since 2009. It had been discontinued for a couple years before Del Potro agreed to move on to a new one, but then the injuries put a lid on that.
Most disappointing was Del Potro’s inability to close out the second set. Up 30-0 and a break at 5-4, he gave the lead back to Pospisil. In the next game, Del Potro backed off what looked like a routine inside-out forehand due to what could have been a right ankle problem. But he walked that off, bouncing along the baseline as Pospisil held to 6-5.
Remembering what the Argentine is capable of, make no mistake: Del Potro’s downward slide due to injuries has cheated tennis.
Del Potro tore up the tour in 2009, with a 54-16 match record. He won the U. S. Open and Washington, which he’d won in 2008 as well. He made the semifinals of Roland Garros, Miami and Madrid. He finished the season in the top eight and, as a result, was invited to the ATP World Tour Finals, where he defeated Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer in the round-robin play and Robin Soderling in the semifinals before losing in the final to an inspired Nikolay Davydenko.
Fittingly, Thursday’s second set ended in a tiebreak. Del Potro held his only set point, there, but double faulted at another inopportune time. Rusty rhythm.
“I don’t feel frustrated,” Del Potro said, after the match. “I have to take the positive things on my comeback. It doesn’t matter the score, for now. I didn’t serve well in the special moments, which is tough for me.”
Pospisil didn’t have an easy time, either. The Canadian had to put aside who he was playing and execute. His net game was spot on and he served 13 aces in the two set encounter.
Del Potro grabbed his gear and left Stadium Court quickly, after his loss. His head drooped – which isn’t abnormal – but this time signs of distress seemed visible. He did remember to show his appreciation of the audience, but didn’t stop to sign autographs.
“It’s the most important [to] be patient and stay calm,” he said, later. “And, also try to be positive. I want to play tennis. If I have to learn a different backhand to keep playing, I will do it. [I’m] trying to keep trying and stay mentally strong.”
We can only hope that Del Potro will be back, trying again to bring himself around to the mastery to which we were accustomed. For that, we will have to wait patiently as he did for almost two years before returning to his passion.
“It’s amazing tournament for me,” he said, later. “The atmosphere. It’s great, as always. Argentinian fans, South American people come to watch me play here once again. It was great for me enjoying with the crowd for a little bit. It’s only one match, but it was enough for the beginning.”