His demeanor is quiet. His tennis is loud.
Juan Martin del Potro brings passion to tennis. He’s beloved from Argentina’s pampas to hardscrabble Queens.
He’s tall. Like some other pretty fine players – Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey and Todd Martin – he’s 6’6″.
His forehands crackle. They spit loud like gunfire. Patrick Mouratoglou marveled, “There’s only one forehand like that.”
Today the Grandstand seemed more like a court at the Buenos Aires Open than the US Open. Del Potrians – many in Argentinian blue – rocked the intimate, fan-friendly enclave. Not since Guga Kuerten have we seen such an appealing, soulful player emerge out of South America or, for that matter, out of any continent.
Plus, the man has been robbed of his destiny. At the 2009 US Open he beat Rafa Nadal in the semis and then, in the final, he overpowered Roger Federer in five memorable sets to break Roger’s 40-match tournament winning streak and grab the title. He wept with joy.
He seemed destined to become the No. 1 player in the world. But then the good man had bad luck. First one wrist, then another went out. Botched surgeries and flawed comebacks plagued him. The power-meister was never quite the same. His backhand, once such a considerable force, now was a modest (do-no-harm) shadow of itself.
But he never complained. Fans warmed to this gentle soul who never gave up. We noted his humility when he met his fellow Argentinian Pope Francis in 2013. We approved when he paid his coach for a year even when he was off the tour. Last year, we applauded when in Rio he beat Djokovic and Nadal en route to the Olympic silver medal in singles and then led Argentina to a Davis Cup Championship – sheer ecstasy in Croatia. All the while, fans hoped Delpo would have a meteoric rise to the top. It never happened.
This year he didn’t beat a single player within the top eight. He came to the Open holding the modest No. 24 seed. Still, he swept to the fourth round without losing a set. There he faced Dominic “The Dominator” Thiem, one of the game’s well-hyped Next Gen stars.
Today the Austrian had little sympathy for the Delpo. He ran the 29-year-old from corner to corner. Juan Martin flailed one moment, he staggered the next. Even the 12-year-old kid in the Toronto Maple Leaf jersey noted that his backhand was a liability. Austrian Thiem, seeded No. 6, took the first two sets 6-1, 6-2 in 73 breathless, brutal minutes – pain. Delpo took a pill. He couldn’t breathe. He bent over in agony. He thought of quitting.
But Delpo doesn’t quit, and his frenetic fans kept chanting loud. Their message was clear: “Come back Delpo.”
He did. Juan Martin broke quickly and won the third set 6-1. Then, when he was down 6-5 in the fourth set, he coolly saved two match points with aces of 127 and 121 mph – whoosh!
Now a gorgeous sunset to the west had given way to a golden full moon rising in the east. And, in the fifth set, Delpo rose to the occasion as he gained three break points in the sixth game. But Thiem mercilessly picked on the Argentine’s backhand and Delpo failed to convert. Still, his serve was punishing. “Ole, ole, ole – Delpo, Delpo!” was the crowd’s incessant mantra.
Federer once said that, with James Blake, Delpo had the best forehand in tennis. Tonight we saw why. It was a whip. Flat, fierce and fast – he unleashed it at will in a relentless onslaught. Delpo doesn’t stroke forehands, he cracks them.
Ultimately “The Dominator” was dominated. Befuddled and frustrated, Thiem withered. And when a scoreboard replay showed that he had double-faulted to give Delpo a 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 win, the arena exploded. Dance-in-the-aisles delight descended. Hug-your- neighbor joy prevailed. Never mind if you wore Argentine blue or a Vamos Rafa hat, girls from Great Neck shimmied and the guy from the Golden State Surf Club beamed. Hugs and happiness prevailed – we are all Delpotrians.
The exhausted warrior joked with the crowd, “I don’t know what can I say after this big battle. I was sick the last two days. I came here trying to play as well as I can. When I saw all of this crowd cheering for me, my illness cleared up…I fight like this because of you guys…I would like to have the [US Open] trophy after these five matches.”
He told IT, “I played one of the epic matches of my career here at the US Open, which is my favorite tournament, in front of a great crowd. [Today] I was exhausted after the last point of the match. That’s [why I did] what I did with my hands, looking [to] the sky.”
For his part, Federer noted this is why Del Potro came back to tennis – for moments like this.
“There have been a lot of great matches,” noted USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith, “but none any better than this. We could have been in Argentina tonight.”
Yes, Melbourne’s Hisense Arena can get Aussie happy. The French Open’s Bullring is a delight, and Wimbledon’s Henman Hill is an enchanting English Garden party on steroids.
But take note – tonight’s iconic drama was the coming-out party for the Open’s fan-friendly Grandstand Court – an arena that is destined to become a go-to site.
Still, Delpo’s next battle will be a much bigger one in a much bigger venue – Arthur Ashe Stadium – against a foe with far more of a resume than the fallen Dominator.
Del Potro’s quarterfinal confrontation with Federer (which probably takes place Wednesday night) promises be an epic sequel to their 2009 final. Here we will relish a clash between the soulful tall man from South America and the balletic Alpine hero we all adore. There will be plenty of sympathy for the Delpo, but our tennis God is hardly dead.