Like many athletes, Juan Martin del Potro knows a thing or two about bad luck.
He also knows how to stare it in the face and fight back.
A stunning grand slam title victory at the 2009 US Open was followed by a heart-breaking right wrist injury, which prompted surgery and sidelined him for most of the 2010 season.
He climbed his way back into the top-10 by early 2012 and last year he made his first grand slam semifinal since 2009 by reaching the last four at Wimbledon.
It’s a classic comeback tale and the tennis world has been eagerly awaiting del Potro’s next grand slam title.
So you can imagine the Argentine’s reaction when he started feeling pain in his wrist earlier this year – the left wrist this time, not the right one.
After lifting the trophy in Sydney, del Potro had a shock second round exit at the Australian Open last month, losing in five sets to Roberto Bautista Agut.
Soon after, he was on a flight to Minnesota, to visit the doctor who had helped heal his right wrist a few years ago.
After some rehab, del Potro returned to the courts in Rotterdam, where he lost in the quarters, before coming to Dubai, where he will be looking to regain his confidence and his touch.
“Of course when you get an injury, there’s nothing around me. Everything is bad and black – a black mind,” del Potro told Sport360° yesterday. “Everything goes in the negative way. But I believe in my doctor. That’s the doctor who fixed my right wrist, and I trust him.
“I just need time to practice my backhand again, trying to get confidence on my wrist, because I lost the muscles, I lost the confidence, the movements… I lost everything and I just need time to get that again.”
The 25-year-old gives credit to his family and friends in helping him remain positive. He draws confidence from the belief they have in him.
“They are very important for me and they still believe in my game, in me. It’s enough to keep me motivated and positive, trying to fix the problem that I have and have a go once again,” added the world No5. Injury business aside, del Potro’s quest for a second slam has been a hot topic for the last three years.
Every season, pundits tip him as the most likely to shake the ‘Big Four’ order and he is yet to fulfil what many believe is his destiny.
So what is harder for the big man from Tandil: winning his first major or dealing with the expectation of adding another one to his resume?
“Both are very tough,” he declares. “Could be harder to survive with the expectation to win the second one because no one expected you to win the first one, like maybe (Stanislas) Wawrinka at the Australian Open.
“I think all the tennis world was expecting Novak (Djokovic), Rafa (Nadal) or (Roger) Federer to win a grand slam and in the end Wawrinka won his first title.
“But now he will be feeling the pressure to win another one. It’s not easy to manage that but I also think it’s a good pressure on you. Because if people want you to win another grand slam, that means something.”
He is not worried for Wawrinka though, adding: “He’s very smart, he has experience on tour and of course he can do it again.”
Between the 2005 French Open and the 2012 Wimbledon, del Potro was the only player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a major.
Andy Murray changed that by capturing two grand slam titles in 2012 and 2013 and Wawrinka has now done it in Australia, which makes many believe that the field in the upcoming majors is perhaps as open as it has ever been in recent years.
Del Potro disagrees though and still favours the usual suspects: “No I don’t think so. I think the favourites are still the same names as always. The next one is the French Open on clay courts – Rafa will be the favourite. But if he doesn’t win the tournament then you have Djokovic who’s playing great on clay. Maybe (David) Ferrer could be another favourite on clay.”
Perhaps with his injury in mind, del Potro has relatively humble goals for the season.
He says the main objective is to remain in the top-10 and trying his best in the majors. In Dubai this week, he’s playing both singles and doubles – alongside Radek Stepanek – hoping to get as much match play as possible to regain confidence, particularly on his backhand.
And having reached the semi-finals both times he’s come here, he feels he can do well on the courts of the Aviation Club.
“It’s a great atmosphere, it’s a good tournament to play and I think I have a good chance to try and reach my first final here,” says del Potro, who has had the support of football legend Diego Maradona in the stands the last couple of years in Dubai.
“I have a very special fan here cheering for me,” he added with a laugh.
His toughest opponent
I don’t like to play against Federer because we’re friends and he has a really tough game. He plays drop shots, slices and I don’t like that kind of game. He’s very smart and he likes to play against me. If I can take another big name I would take one of them for sure.
What he would change about tennis
I would like to change the time between points. Because we don’t have enough time to breathe, think about the next point… We have only 20-25 seconds between points. If you play a grand slam match, five sets, four, five hours, it’s very little time to be ready for the next point.
How he moves so well despite being 198cm tall
I do extra work with my movement, with my physio every day. I need to be faster than everyone because I’m the tallest guy and I also work hard at the gym, trying not to get injuries in my shoulders or back. All tall players have problems with their back and I think I’m okay with my body.
The tour is an absolute grind for all players and it could be particularly challenging for a top player with a family and kids to travel for close to 45 weeks a year.
So when a player gets a chance to stay home during a tournament, it sounds like a true blessing.
Which is one of the reasons why Roger Federer particularly enjoys competing in Dubai – a place where he has had a residence for several years and which he considers a second home.
The five-time Dubai champion has been spotted at the Aviation Club practicing hard for the past week or so and says he’s ready to get his campaign underway against Benjamin Becker tonight.
“I do spend time here for practice so it’s nice to also play the tournament here. I always feel like there’s no adjustment really needed when I come back to this place. I haven’t played in a few weeks too so that always creates extra motivation and I’m looking forward to it,” said Federer, who is seeded fourth in Dubai.
“I’ve been preparing for over a week. Not much to do other than practice. It’s been a really good preparation week and I hope it’s going to pay off.”
The 17-time grand slam champion is married, has twin girls and has another baby on the way. Asked how he handles all the travelling with his family in tow, the Swiss joked: “I don’t know, it’s like a circus, we put up our tents, then pack them back up and leave on a train.
“It took some getting used to because it changes a lot from when they were little babies to now. I’m really looking forward to how it’s going to be with the next kid.
“I think it’s going to be easy at this point because having twins right off the bat was tough and we made it work so I’m just very happy. And I appreciate my wife doing all the hard work.”
Federer has had a strong start tothe year, reaching the final in Brisbane and the semis at the Australian Open and the Swiss believes he’s in tip-top shape and playing great tennis.
“I feel I’m in as good a shape that I’ve been in a year at least, so that’s very encouraging,” said the world No8. “I feel my best tennis is around the corner. I’ve said that quite a few times but I feel that this time that’s really the case. I wake up with zero pain, I’m excited to play tournaments, a good start to the season, a solid finish to last year’s season as well.
"And what was very encouraging was my off season. I trained really hard here in Dubai for a month so that was key for me to know that my body was going to handle that stress level and for that reason I’m confident for the year.”
Federer could potentially face world No2 and defending Dubai champion Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals.
Djokovic has played only five official matches this year and is coming off a quarter-final loss at the Australian Open.
He comes to Dubai with a new coach Boris Becker as part of his team and says he can overcome the rustiness from the lack of match play when he takes on Denis Istomin in the first round tomorrow.
“It’s going to be challenging for me to go out on the court and try to find a way to play this kind of match situations because I haven’t had many matches this year,” admits Djokovic, who has won the Dubai title four times in the past five years.
“I practiced a lot for three weeks and that’s why I need to be extra careful because it’s totally different when you get on the court and you play an official match in front of a lot of people.
“I’ve been trying to play many points in the last few days against all the players who are in this tournament. Each day I feel little by little progress and hopefully I can have a good tournament here.”
Top two seeds, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, both believe the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships deserve to be upgraded to a Masters 1000 event on the ATP calendar.
Djokovic has not missed a single edition of the tournament since he made his debut here in 2007, and after he captured his fourth title at the Aviation Club last year, had said on court that he wishes the event could gain Masters 1000 status rather than its current ATP 500 level.
“I still stand behind what I said,” Djokovic said yesterday. “I still believe that this tournament deserves it. Because considering the fields that we’ve had in the last 10 years, there’s always three or four minimum top-10 players.
“So it definitely deserves to be a 1000 event in my opinion. I think many top players would agree with that fact because it’s such a strong event. And it has the potential, it has many courts, the facilities, still can improve, the people here love tennis, there’s a lot of attendance.”
The tour has nine Masters 1000 events which are the biggest tournaments behind the grand slams and Djokovic says he does not know the specifics on how Dubai can become a bigger event but would like to see it happen one day.
“Now if this tournament can take away somebody’s 1000 or it can be another 1000 that’s something that’s more complicated to talk about now,” said the Serb.
Del Potro agrees with Djokovic and believes in the potential of the tournament.
“I agree with what Novak said. This tournament has five top-10 players. We have very good facilities here. Every single match the stands are full and they make a beautiful atmosphere for the tennis matches and they deserve to keep growing and maybe one day they can be a Masters 1000,” said the No2 seed.
Meanwhile, Djokovic took the opportunity to come to his new coach Boris Becker’s defence, responding to critics who attributed the Serb’s quarter-final loss at the Australia Open against Stanislas Wawrinka to the shake up in his coaching staff.
“The year before I won in the fourth round against Stan in five sets, so it’s sport. You win and you lose. It’s not because Boris was there instead of Marian (Vajda). We are not significantly changing anything in my game.”