Juan Martin del Potro speaks to Reem Abulleil in Indian Wells about how he's enjoying life in his "second career".
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.
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.”