Juan Martin del Potro speaks to Reem Abulleil about how he plans to get back to his fighting best following a string of injuries.
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.