A tennis pro can end up with just one major victory to their credit for a variety of reasons.
In the case of Iva Majoli – and potentially Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic – it’s learning that the sport actually gets harder when excellence is expected of you. For Jana Novotná and Goran Ivanisevic, it’s a case of early frustrations not met until later in life.
And then there’s Andy Roddick, whose best was good enough for one two-week period in 2003, but hasn’t been ever since. There’s almost always a hint of sadness to their stories (though Ivanisevic and Novotná’s end on positive notes), but some more than others.
Juan Martin del Potro is still very young, and may have many more years of success ahead of him. Before that, though, he has to be able to play again.
Del Potro’s first slam win at the US Open last year was stunning: He was the tallest major champion ever at 6’6”, and the first to demonstrate that a guy that size could trade groundstrokes with the game’s best – that’s certainly what Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are – and prevail.
Nadal has endured losses, even lopsided ones, at the hands of hard hitters on firm surfaces, but never before looked as helpless as he did against the big Argentine in the USO semis. Federer has been outlasted and outfought by Nadal, but he’d never been outright overpowered, or lost a USO final, before he ran into del Potro.
Remember that day? If you’re a Federer fan it may not be fun to think about, but it certainly was amazing to see The Great Swiss, wielder of the most effective forehand of the modern era, hit only 20 winners off that wing to Delpo’s 37. It was almost as startling to see a 20-year-old kid with arms as narrow as the neck of his racket fall behind against the game’s greatest frontrunner, only to hit his way out and win in five.
Hard hitters are almost as old as the sport itself, and are regularly being replaced by someone who hits just that much bigger or better, but del Potro looked sure to see great things ahead in the near term, and maybe beyond.
His greatest achievement as a tennis player, seen that September evening in New York, was practically the last time we saw him healthy. It’s not unusual to see pros struggling with injuries in the fall; that the tennis season is too long for the well-being of the players is an article of faith held by all observers save the late-season tournament directors and the ATP hierarchy that appeases them.
Still, he reached the final round of the ATP World Tour Finals, earning a second win over Federer in the process. His wrist aching, he then reached the fourth round in the Australian Open, fighting off a pair of stern tests from Michael Russell, James Blake and Florian Mayer, and giving a tough match to fellow big man Marin Cilic in before falling.
Those displays of determination on the Melbourne asphalt may have not been worth it, though, because he hasn’t played since. That was the beginning of February, and since then, del Potro has missed four Master’s Series events and host of other tournaments. He’s still ranked fifth in the world, but will certainly fall because he can’t defend the points he earned by making the semis in Madrid and Roland Garros last year.
Earlier this week, we learned that the wrist, that little part of the big man’s frame, required surgery on May 4 and will keep him out of action, perhaps for a long period of time.
“This is not a happy time in my life,” said the 21-year-old who until recently was playing a game for a living and getting rich off it. He said that he was accustomed to fighting adversity, though, and promised he would continue to do so.
Roland Garros will continue as scheduled, and most eyes will be on Federer as he seeks to defend the title that eluded him the longest, and on Nadal as he seeks to win his first major in a year and a half. It should be recalled, though, that last year’s event may have been a turning point for the Argentine: It was his first major semi, and there that he took Federer to five sets.
Prior to that, he’d never even won a set from the Swiss in five meetings. Federer was determined to capture the only major he’d ever won, and managed to outlast del Potro, but it may have been that effort that convince the Argentine he need fear no player – even the game’s greatest practitioner.
He may have remembered that lesson in mid-September.
As the players play on the Paris dirt, wish del Potro well in his recovery. Seeing a young man of such promise end up a one-slam wonder would be unfortunate no matter the cause.
But bad luck would be the saddest reason of all.