For the first time in two and a half years, Juan Martin del Potro will be contesting a grand slam and the tennis world is rejoicing.
The sport’s friendliest giant, the one man you just cannot root against, will be back on the major stage on Tuesday for his Wimbledon first round against Frenchman Stephane Robert.
Three surgeries on his left wrist have kept Del Potro away from the game and on Tuesday, he makes his first appearance at the All England Club in three years.
The last time he played at Wimbledon, the Argentine lost an epic five-setter to Novak Djokovic in the 2013 semi-finals. Today, his targets are far less ambitious.
Every morning, Del Potro wakes up, does hours of rehab on his left wrist before deciding whether or not he will step on a court that day.
While tennis players spend their lives planning ahead, committing to tournaments a year in advance, and setting goals for the entire season, Del Potro has learned the hard way how to take life one day at a time.
He has not hired a long-term coach, has not set a fixed schedule for the remaining five months of the season and has no idea when his wrist will be back at 100 per cent. But there is one thing the 27-year-old is certain about: he wants to enjoy the game he loves and will do anything he can to hold on to it.
It has been a brutal period for Del Potro over the past couple of years, especially considering he had problems with his other wrist that sidelined him earlier in his career, just after he won his first and only grand slam at the 2009 US Open and peaked at No4 in the world.
But it’s been a test that taught him an important life lesson.
“I think you never know what could happen in your life. You just have to try to be happy all the time, on the court, off the court as well,” Del Potro told Sport360 at SW19, of what he learned from this whole injury experience.
“My mum always told me ‘you have to study because the tennis life is very short and you never know what could happen’ and I finished my school at the same time as my friends and if I go to university I have the chance to start tomorrow if I want to because I did all my school in good terms and that’s important for all the junior players and all the kids. My mum was very smart with me.”
For now, university is not on his mind.
Since his return to action in February, ranked outside the top-1000, Del Potro has played seven tournaments and reached two semi-finals – on hard courts in Delray Beach and on grass in Stuttgart – and is now up to No164 in the world rankings.
During his hiatus, Del Potro had to part ways with his coach Franco Davin as he was unaware how long – if ever – it would take him to return to tennis and he spent the past few months without anyone helping him. But last week, he started working with Venezuelan Dani Vallverdu – Andy Murray’s ex-hitting partner, who recently split with Tomas Berdych. Del Potro revealed it is just a temporary arrangement though.
“I don’t know if we’re going to work together in the future but from the moment and for this big event, it is a great option to work together, and then I will have time to decide,” said Del Potro.
“We’ve known each other since junior tournaments and we’re staying together here because he was alone and I’ve been alone for a while and we have a great relationship. For me it’s great to have Dani here because he knows me a lot and he also has the same culture since he is a Venezuelan guy and he’s a very good person.”
With former champions – referred to as “super coaches” – swarming the grounds here at Wimbledon as they accompany the ATP stars they are coaching, has Del Potro thought about potentially hiring one himself?
“To be honest I didn’t think much about coaches because I’m still recovering my wrist and the most time of the day I’m doing treatments for my wrist and I couldn’t practice 100 per cent yet because I do three hours a day my wrist treatments and when I go to the court I’m just practicing forehand, serves and just a couple of backhands, but not a 100 per cent yet,” he explained.
“I’m not going to lose time, taking a super coach for this moment, but maybe in the future, if I could solve my wrist problem and I’m still 100 per cent, it would be great for me, because it’s a great experience to share moments with these coaches…
“I’m starting to feel better, my wrist is starting to respond as I expected a couple of months ago and in the future I will try to make a good team to stay together for a few years.”
Del Potro had opted out of playing the French Open, preferring to make his grand slam return at Wimbledon because on grass “I can play more slices, I can serve-and-volley and for my wrist that’s much better.”
He won an Olympic bronze medal here at the All England Club in 2012 and is a former Wimbledon semi-finalist but he wasn’t always that comfortable on grass.
“The first time I played on grass I felt horrible, as every Argentinean player does,” he said with a laugh.
Djokovic, the last player Del Potro faced at Wimbledon, has done incredible things on tour in the Argentine’s absence, dominating the sport and taking his grand slam tally to 12 majors, including the last four in a row.
“I’m so happy for him because he’s a friend of mine and he deserves all these tournaments,” Del Potro said of the Serbian world No1.
“He’s playing great and he’s on a good way to get closer to Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal) and he’s working really hard. And when you work hard and you’re doing everything perfect, the results come. He deserves it and I wish him all the best because he’s making tennis more exciting at the moment because Roger and Rafa are a little down than always and he’s taking the opportunity to win all the tournaments.”
Del Potro credits his family and friends for helping him stay positive throughout his ordeal. Asked if he consulted with psychologist, he says: “I spoke with everybody. But the most important thing was to stay close to my family and friends. They supported me every day…
“I’m here because of that and because of them too we are enjoying more tennis than the past for sure and I would like to say thank you to them because I’m here because they were behind me and never left me alone and never let me quit tennis.”
Del Potro’s approach to his return to the sport sounds more like a trial period, than an actual planned out comeback. He may have posted some decent results and beaten some good players like Dominic Thiem and Gilles Simon over the past four months, but he remains cautious in his aspirations.
“I would like to do that (set goals and make plans), but it’s not easy, I cannot make a long schedule because I’m going day by day,” he says.
“Every day I start with my treatments on the wrist and after that if I feel good I go to the court and practice and play tournaments.
“But now I’m starting to think more about tournaments, more about tennis things, and not about doctors or treatments or weeks to stop.
“And that will be my real life in tennis and I would like to play the summer in America, then the Asia tournaments because I had great results there and my biggest challenge would be to be 100 per cent for the end of the year to be ready for the next season.”
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