Photograph: Oscar Roberto Castro
When the tennis world looks back through history the 9th of February 2022 will go down as one of the most emotional days ever seen on the tour.
The day was the last time that Argentine legend Juan Martin Del Potro stepped on a court professionally.
In a tear-jerking affair, Del Potro played his swansong in front of an adoring home crowd at the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires, 355km north of his hometown of Tandil.
Down 1-6, 3-5 against compatriot Federico Delbonis in what would be his final service game, Del Potro was moved to tears as the crowd sang and chanted his name in celebration of a fine career.
Photograph: Getty Images
In fact, it was greater than a ‘fine’ career; anyone who claimed a slam in this era has done a remarkable job given the prowess of the “Big 3”. Yet, there has always been a question of ‘what if?’ attached to the 2009 US Open champion.
In the 17 years that Del Potro has been on the pro tour, 57 of a possible 68 slam titles have been shared between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The remaining titles were won by Stan Wawrinka (4), Andy Murray (3), Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Del Potro.
While the “Big 3” fight with each other to be known as the greatest of all time, you can’t help but think ‘what if?’ when it comes to the career of Del Potro.
Since winning his sole major at Flushing Meadows in 2009, the Argentine suffered a horror run of wrist and knee injuries that forced him to go under the knife eight times.
The constant injury interruptions stalled a career that included the 2009 US Open, the 2016 Olympic singles gold medal and a 2016 Davis Cup triumph. It's results like this that leave you pondering what more he could’ve achieved if it wasn’t for his rotten luck.
Del Potro was a trailblazer for what has become the prototype for the modern-day player. He used his height and incredible power to overwhelm his opponents and possessed one of the most lethal forehands the game has ever seen.
He used this forehand to bully his opponents off the court; something Nadal and Federer remember all too well from the 2009 US Open.
A 20-year-old Del Potro completely dominated Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in devastating fashion; the likes of which have scarcely been seen since.
A day later, he came back from a set down twice against a peak Roger Federer to capture what was thought to be the first of several majors.
Yet, lady luck has her own way of doing things.
After the highs of the US Open Del Potro was brought back to earth when injury reared its ugly head. The Argentine had dealt with a wrist issue following the US Open and underwent surgery in March 2010; keeping him out of action till 2011.
This was the first of many injuries that derailed what should have been a multiple slam winning career.
He was robbed of the chance to capitalise on his form in 2010 and without the injury, who knows what he could’ve achieved as a star on the rise.
Del Potro came back well after the surgery but soon found himself injured again in a pattern that haunted him his whole career. He would start playing great tennis, return to the top of the game and then get struck down by injury time after time.
His US Open title should not have been a flash in the pan - instead, it should have been the start of an epic era featuring the “Big 4”; where the number 21 wouldn’t even be on the horizon.
Unlike many players who have come since, Del Potro often troubled the “Big 3” with his powerful hitting - especially on the forehand wing.
Without ever getting a consistent run at it, Del Potro had a career winning percentage of 27.4% (17/62) against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic combined. He also held a 4/2 win/loss record against Federer in tournament finals.
Del Potro stacks up well against the other high achievers from his vintage, especially given the inconsistency with his fitness. Four-time major winner Wawrinka had a 16.4% (12/73) record against the “Big 3” while Murray enjoyed a 34.1% (29/85) record.
Once again, you can’t help but think ‘what if?’ when it comes to the career of Del Potro.
If he was able to stay on the court consistently, the narrative of the past decade of men’s tennis would be written by a different author…one with the biggest forehand the game has seen.
Yet, as we have reached the end of a tumultuous career - let's steer away from the ‘what if?’ and celebrate a universally loved player.
Grand Slam champion, Olympic champion, Davis Cup champion, 22 ATP singles titles, outstanding role model and one of the most enjoyable players to watch on tour.
What a career, Juan Martin Del Potro.