When the day comes for Juan Martin del Potro to retire from professional tennis, he has a clear idea of how he wants to be remembered in the sport.
“I hope they can say I was the most patient player on tour, or the most emotional,” Del Potro told me between at the start of the Indian Wells tournament.
For Del Potro, patience is everything. It is what got him through four wrist surgeries – one on his right and three on his left – and what has helped him get back to the top-10 this season for the first time since 2014.
The 29-year-old from Tandil, Argentina returned to tennis two years ago after undergoing triple-surgery on his left wrist.
A US Open champion in 2009, who peaked at a career-high ranking of No. 4 in 2010, Del Potro was nearly forced to quit tennis due to his physical problems but has somehow come through it still standing and I currently ranked No. 8 in the world.
Since his return, he has won an Olympic silver medal, has clinched Argentina a first Davis Cup crown, has made the semi-finals at the 2017 US Open – defeating Roger Federer along the way – and has claimed three titles, two in Stockholm and one ATP 500-level trophy in Acapulco last week.
Does he see this part of his life as a second career, or a continuation of his journey?
“It could be a new career after my third surgery because I won incredible titles, I won a silver medal in Rio, the Davis Cup title, the top-10 again after many many years, you could call it like a second career,” says Del Potro.
Otra emoción inolvidable. Gracias Tandil!!! 🇦🇷🇦🇷🇦🇷 pic.twitter.com/LJEhR3figV
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) August 16, 2016
The ‘Tower of Tandil’ is into the fourth round in Indian Wells, where he takes on his countryman Leonardo Mayer on Wednesday night (not before 7:00am Thursday Dubai time).
Del Potro is 13-3 win-loss so far this season, and is on a seven-match winning streak.
Some of his most successful career moments have come in the United States. Six of his 21 titles were won in America. He has reached the quarter-finals or better four times at the US Open, and was runner-up in Indian Wells, California in 2013.
“I feel really comfortable in the United States because it’s close to my hometown and also I have a lot of friends living in Miami and I have my own house in Miami so the United States feels like my second home,” he says.
Nonetheless, Argentina is deeply rooted in Del Potro’s DNA and he still lives in his hometown of Tandil. He is considered a national hero there, especially after taking silver in Rio and winning the Davis Cup.
He says he takes his home country with him everywhere he goes.
“The mate, mate is a very specific drink from our country. It’s like a hot tea, with ‘yerba’ and that’s very typical of Argentinean people, and for me too. I take this drink everywhere I go and if you see Argentinean people around the world, they must have the mate for sure. It’s a moment to share with friends and family,” he explains.
He and his next opponent, Mayer, go way back. Mayer, ranked No. 47 in the world, is only one year older than Del Potro and they came up in the sport together.
“I will play another Argentinian guy tomorrow, which is a special match for both of us. It’s not easy when you play against a friend,” Del Potro told reporters after his third round win over David Ferrer on Tuesday.
“We practice a lot together. We train at the same club in Buenos Aires. We grew up together. We won the Davis Cup together. And we have dinners together and we spend a lot of time together.
“It will be a special match for both. And I know if he has a good day, he’s very dangerous guy, and he plays solid from the baseline. He plays very flat, and his serves are good enough to beat me or to beat anyone on tour.”
We’re only in the fourth round stage but everyone is already talking about a potential Del Potro-Federer final. They are the two biggest draw cards still alive in the tournament, and have a long history of some unforgettable encounters throughout their careers.
“I love to play with him, we’ve played epic matches during our whole career and it’s not easy to play with the person you admire but if I had to take one match or one opponent to play in a final I would take Roger for sure, because one day I could tell my kids ‘I played many times with Federer and I beat him’ and that’s why I like to play with him,” Del Potro said of the Swiss legend before the tournament.
Del Potro’s popularity is undeniable and he admits “I feel like a local wherever I go”.
He believes fans have a special connection to him because they know what he has endured to continue to compete in the sport.
Del Potro’s left wrist surgeries have meant that he has had to change the way he plays tennis. Accepting his new situation and adapting his game to it is probably the greatest triumph of his career, and it’s why he is back in the top-eight after all he’s been through.
“I know I’m playing a different game than a few years ago. I mix it up with the slice, drop shots. I try to come to the net more often than years ago,” explains Del Potro.
“I like the way I’m playing now. It’s more fun to watch, also. And I improved on other things in my game as my volleys and slices, and I think I have a complete game at the moment, but I know what to do to improve that…
“I think I’m a more complete player now… But in terms of all my game, of course I would prefer to have again my old two-handed backhand. But this is the way that I play today and I have to agree with that.”
Simona Halep believes Serena Williams deserves to be seeded No. 1 at tournaments in her comeback from maternity leave “because she left as No. 1 in the world”.
Serena is back to the tour following a 13-month absence during which she had her first child, Olympia, last September, and is unranked. The American can enter up to eight tournaments though with a protected ranking of 22 (hasn’t been unseeded at an event since Cincinnati 2011), but cannot be seeded with that protected ranking.
That meant that the 23-time Grand Slam champion faced off with her eighth-seeded sister Venus as early as the third round in Indian Wells on Monday.
It prompted many to raise questions over the WTA rules and whether a player returning from maternity leave should also be given a ‘protected seeding’.
“I was thinking about Serena in this tournament, and also we were talking a little bit with my coach (Darren Cahill). And I think she should have been actually No. 1 seed in this tournament because she left as No. 1 in the world,” said current world No. 1 Halep on Tuesday following her 7-5, 6-1 victory over Wang Qiang in the fourth round at Indian Wells.
“And to give birth, it’s the best thing in the world. It’s more than a sport. So I think she should have been ranked as she left. Not taking the ranking because she didn’t play tournaments, but just protected ranking for — I don’t know how many tournaments you have, like, eight. She could be the No. 1 seed for that, for those tournaments. This is my opinion.”
Halep is echoing her coach Darren Cahill’s thoughts, who tweeted the following during Venus and Serena’s third round clash that was won by the older Williams sister 6-3, 6-4.
this match should not be happening in a 3rd round. Serena (and all mothers) should be protected by the WTA and allowed to use their protected ranking for seeding, if applicable. Women should not be penalized for giving birth by starting from zero 😊
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) March 12, 2018
Halep was in the stands watching the all-Williams clash on Monday night, despite being scheduled first on Stadium 1 on Tuesday.
“It was my idea last night, actually,” said the Romanian, who next faces Petra Martic in the quarter-finals.
“It’s always nice to watch them. I love the way that they are motivated and they are still playing at this age, Serena with the kid. So it’s a great thing what they do for sport, and it’s great that tennis has them.
“It was really fun to come out here and watch the game. And also, you know, I have many things to learn from them. That’s why I’m trying just to go in to watch every time I can…
“I’m the world No. 1 in this moment, but I just watched the best player in the world,” she says of Serena.
A post shared by Simona Halep (@simonahalep) on
For the first five tournaments of the year, Maria Sakkari couldn’t win a match.
The 22-year-old Greek, currently ranked 58 in the world, had a strong end to her 2017, reaching the semi-finals in Wuhan, as a qualifier, then spent part of her offseason practicing with ex-world No. 1s Marat Safin and Dinara Safina in Monaco, under the watchful eye of her coach Thomas Johansson, before heading to Dubai for more training.
But the beginning of 2018 didn’t go according to plan as Sakkari lost her openers in Shenzhen, Sydney, Melbourne, St. Petersburg and Doha before claiming her first of the year in the qualifying rounds in Dubai.
She ended up losing in the final round of qualifying there to Sam Stosur, and was left still searching for a first main draw victory of the season.
That win finally came in Acapulco but it is Indian Wells where Sakkari really found her groove.
She stormed into the fourth round in the California desert without dropping a set, taking out Donna Vekic, No. 16 seed Ashleigh Barty and No. 17 seed Coco Vandeweghe along the way.
Her celebration with her team after that win over Vandeweghe on Sunday said it all.
“We all worked very hard during our offseason and it was really tough for us when I started the year without winning a match for like four, five tournaments. We’re extremely happy that I’m playing well and doing well, feeling well and enjoying myself, that’s why we’re all very excited,” said Sakkari, who faces Naomi Osaka in the last-16 on Tuesday.
Sakkari hired Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion, before the US Open last year and she reached a career-high ranking of 48 a couple of months later.
Johansson admits the beginning of 2018 was tricky but he had no doubt the victories would come.
“I think the expectations were a little bit too high,” the Swedish ex-world No. 7 told Sport360.
“We had a very very good preseason, we spent three weeks in Monaco and 10 days in Dubai and I think pretty much every day she played tennis like she is here (in Indian Wells).
“And then of course the expectations were big coming into the New Year. First week she got sick. So the first two weeks of the year they were out. Then she came back a little bit in Melbourne.
“We’ve been working really hard on a daily basis. And I think if you keep your head high, and if you work hard every day, the wins are going to come.”
Against Vandeweghe, Sakkari was oozing confidence and appeared to be completely in her element.
“I think I was ready for that one,” Sakkari says with a grin.
“Of course I played really against Donna in the first round but beating Ashleigh, which I think she’s the best player on the WTA tour, I think she’s by far the best and she can do anything on court, that gave me a lot of confidence actually so I went out there and I was confident in myself. I knew that I could take her (Vandeweghe) down.”
Vandeweghe is a player who often tries to intimidate her opponents but Sakkari was “relaxed” and unfazed by the American.
“I didn’t really care about what she was doing on the other side of the net. That’s her character, that’s her choice, I have to do my job so whatever she does it doesn’t affect me…
“I think I’m returning really well, I’m solid from the baseline and my serve is quite solid as well. I’m not scared, I had that rough beginning of the year, but now hard work is paying off.”
The slow, high-bouncing court at Indian Wells suits Sakkari’s game, who says it works well with her kick serve and forehand spin, and she’ll try to do more of the same when she faces Osaka in round four.
Not many players can claim that they’ve spent their offseason practicing with two former world No. 1s but Sakkari had the fortune of doing so in Monte Carlo end of last year with the Safins.
“It was great, I love them. They are extremely nice both of them, so funny. We had 10 days of practice, because Marat was practicing for an exhibition he had in London,” she explained.
“Thomas and Marat know each other really well as they played a lot together. So then Thomas asked him if he wanted to hit one day, and then one day became 10. It was great, they gave me a lot of advice, and we still talk quite often.”
A post shared by Maria Sakkari (@sakkattack7) on
Osaka, who is having a great tournament herself, taking out Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Sachia Vickery on her way to the fourth round, said she’s looking forward to competing against someone who gets fired up like Sakkari.
“I feel like it would be a really fun match. She’s really athletic. I know she gets really pumped. I’m just looking forward to it,” said the Japanese youngster.
Sakkari has an athletic body that makes you wonder if she’s played other sports growing up.
“Yes I did a lot of sports. But my body, I was born like that, I think I have my father’s body, Spartan body,” she says with a smile.
Sakkari, whose mother Angelikí Kanellopoúlou was a professional top-50 tennis player, alluded to Greece’s economic problems on court after her third round win, and is proud of her accomplishments during such a tough time for her country.
“We all know that Greece is struggling financially. We don’t have help from the federation like the other countries. We have to do everything ourselves,” she said.
There aren’t many tennis players to come out of Greece but Sakkari’s rise coincides with her countryman’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was ranked No. 1 in juniors and this fortnight made the second round in Indian Wells before falling in three sets to fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem.
“Stefanos, I know him quite well, it’s actually impressive the way he plays. He’s very young, and he’s a very nice guy and I’m very happy for him. And I’m very happy that the two of us can do Greece proud outside of Greece,” said Sakkari.