Juan Martin del Potro: London's True Hero
Juan Martin del Potro, a former runner-up at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, lost an epic match in London earlier this season at the Wimbledon Championships. Barry Flatman, of The Sunday Times, argues that the Argentine deserves some success in the city.
There is losing, there is losing with dignity and there is being applauded off the court as the defeated player but nevertheless a true hero of the contest.
In other words, the beaten man is somebody who won’t just be respected as a competitor who gave his all in a colossal tussle, but someone who in the future will be revered and supported as never before. Most will remember this year's Wimbledon Championships for Andy Murray's achievement of ending Britain's 77-year wait for a men's singles champion. But those who have any compassion for sportsmen will recall Juan Martin del Potro battling Novak Djokovic every inch of the way throughout the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history. With the Argentine back in the city, after qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals here on the other side of London, it is worth spooling back to that afternoon on Wimbledon's Centre Court, and an astonishing match which lasted close to five hours.
Del Potro was a hero in nearly every sense of the word that afternoon, fully deserving of the standing ovation afforded to him as he walked away from a match that had showcased what sport should be about. There was competition, endeavour, ruthlessness, skill, power and finesse. But there was also a camaraderie and a mutual respect between the two players. By eventually fending off the South American, Djokovic put himself through to a Wimbledon final, but he didn't want to immediately move on; there was some emotion in his voice as he said how privileged he felt to have been the winner of the match: "It was one of the most thrilling matches I have ever played."
When things had settled down a little del Potro was able to take stock and he made an interesting suggestion, that he had played better tennis in losing to Djokovic than he had in beating Roger Federer to win the 2009 US Open final. By coming back from two sets to one down on that occasion in New York, del Potro had denied the Swiss what would have been a sixth consecutive men's singles title at Flushing Meadows; he also became the first player to beat Rafael Nadal and Federer in successive matches. At the time it seemed that the tennis world had a new megastar, not just for an hour or two, but for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite turn out that way. True, del Potro reached the final of that season's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals - it was the first year that the tournament was held in London - but soon afterwards wrist problems forced him off the ATP World Tour and his ranking spiralled outside the top 400.
It's a very long way back from such depths, particularly when the confidence is fragile after an operation. But del Potro showed great mental fortitude and determination, the same determination that saw him wage such a battle against Djokovic at Wimbledon this year. He patiently climbed back to a place in the game's elite. “I had to be very calm, because it was a long road back to playing good tennis again or to feel good on the court again,” del Potro has recalled. “It took a long time to fix the problem and then to come back, but I did it. Now it’s hard to say whether I am back to the level I found myself in 2009. I’m back in the top eight players in the world. I think I'm getting closer to the top guys, reaching semi-finals at the Grand Slams and doing well in the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments. That's what I want, to go as far as I can in these kinds of tournaments and to play the last day against these top guys."
Del Potro, who was beaten by Nikolay Davydenko in the final of the 2009 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and who lost a 19-17 final set to Federer in the semi-finals of last year's Olympic Games, has worked on his English over the past few years. And anyone who tells del Potro that his English has improved sees one of his broad and endearing smiles - the kind that everyone enjoyed after he had struck some inspired winners during his Wimbledon encounter with Djokovic. So wouldn't it be nice to hear a victory speech here in Greenwich from the man from Tandil? He deserves, at long last, a little success in London.