Juan Martín del Potro: the tennis giant who was brought down by injuries

The career of Juan Martín del Potro was Eden. And also hell. It was the top and the depths of the ocean. None of the sentences is inaccurate. The man from Tandil was sweetened, practically from his first rackets, with success and applause. And he was mortified by the obstacles and the reproaches.

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High-impact triumphs, titles, glory, respect worldwide, epic, passion, money, popularity, opportunities, messages, joys. Injuries, surgeries, depression, operating rooms, treatments, pressures, silences and bad advice, mistakes, anger, speculation. Racket and scalpel.

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At 33 years old andmore than sixteen seasons as a professional, Del Potro experienced a furious sporting life, an emotional seesaw in the who went from evaluating the best strategy to try to defeat Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to trying to get out of surgery in good condition. Non-stop, to blows.

Giant on the courts, bomber of right and serve, with competitive malice and winning mentality, Del Potro became a threat for the Big 4 ( for Roger and Rafa, first, for Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, later). In fact, he beat all four of them and, furthermore, he is one of the three players who beat Nole, Nadal and Federer when they were at the top of the rankings. Not only that: in total he has ten victories over number 1 , the most for a tennis player who never reached the first step of the tour.

The Argentine’s most outstanding position was 3rd, in August 2018, a few weeks before suffering the -still incredible- fall on the concrete surface of the Shanghai tournament, the same one that would push him -since June 2019- to four operations.

If it was believed that the four wrist surgeries, between 2010 and 2015, had resulted a nightmare for Del Potro, the period that began on October 11, 2018 at the Shanghai Masters 1000 in a match against Borna Coric, when he damaged his right patella when he stumbled and hit his leg on the Chinese cement, it was even worse.

What injury did you suffer? A fracture of the right patella with a vertical line and without displacement, the latter a detail that was no less important that allowed him to avoid the operating room, although at least for a few months. When in June 2019 he slipped on the grass of the Queen’s tournament and suffered from the injury, in the match that ended up beating Canadian Denis Shapovalov, less invasive treatments ceased to be an option.

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Unusual injury and stormy

The injury is totally unusual in tennis. At the time, according to doctors and kinesiologists consulted by ‘La Nación’, it is a more frequent damage in elderly people with osteoporosis who stumble and fall on their knees or in young people who have strong impacts in accidents . Taken to sport, they are more common injuries in football, of course.

The man from Tandil underwent a first operation on his right knee in June 2019, in Barcelona, ??on the recommendation of Ángel Ruiz-Cotorro, the doctor from confidence of Spanish tennis players. In 2021, at the end of January, he entered an operating room again: in Miami, Dr. Lee Kaplan performed an arthroscopic toilet, a kind of “cleaning” of what was wrong in the area.

Sin the results he expected, in August 2020 the Argentine tennis player underwent surgery for the third time on his knee. He now he was in Bern, Switzerland, by Dr. Roland Biedert, a highly trusted professional of Roger Federer. But still in pain, in March 2021, adding 21 months without competing , he re-entered an operating room to try to find solutions for his knee problems. This time in Chicago, before the Argentine doctor Jorge Chahla. “The definitive one”, he wrote in his networks.

In the midst of searching for alternatives, Del Potro traveled to Porto Alegre, to a medical center that prides itself on performing “non-surgical regenerative orthopedic procedures with a revolutionary proposal” and which also attends, for example, the former Uruguayan soccer leader Diego Lugano.

Del Potro underwent a procedure called BMAC, a concentrate of stem cells and factors of growth of the bone marrow. It is not the first time that during this traumatic period he has undergone stem cell treatment: Ruiz Cotorro, a doctor from the Royal Spanish Tennis Federation, also had it done, but the Argentine did not find the results he expected. It is a relatively modern therapy, which still does not have the extensive statistics of other treatments and whose effectiveness -many times- depends on “getting the tissue right” in which it is applied.

In 2018, with its 22 With the fourth and last trophy won, in the Californian desert of Indian Wells (the first in the Masters 1000 category in his career), Del Potro completed an extraordinary resume: champion of a Grand Slam (the United States Open United 2009, at the age of 20, in the final against Federer, who was undefeated in 40 games in New York), double Olympic medalist (bronze in London 2012 and silver in Rio de Janeiro 2016), figure and champion of the Davis Cup 2016 and winner in the other divisions of the ATP Tour (250 and 500). Between 2008 and 2018 he played another thirteen finals (including the 2018 US Open, lost to Djokovic) and there could have been many more. With 439, he is the Argentine with the most victories after Guillermo Vilas, with 951.

Could del Potro have been number 1 in the world? Yes; he had the conditions to reach that privileged place. He too could have retired many years ago? Yes too. The surgeries on his right wrist, left wrist and right knee cornered him and suffocated him, confused him and made him doubt everything.

The total time of his inactivity, if the most severe injuries are added, impacts: 1984 days. That is to say that of the 16 years of professional, he was unable to play in almost five and a half. Too much torture.

“Del Potrocould have been number 1 without so many injuries. He is an incredible talent who has struggled with many physical issues. I’m a big fan of his.” The affirmation, before the consultation of ‘The Nation’, belongs to the American Paul Annacone, coach of Pete Sampras (when The King of Swing conquered Flushing Meadows 2002 and then retired) and of Federer (the Swiss’s seventh trophy at Wimbledon, in 2012, it was the most valuable achievement of society).

“He is one of the greatest talents of the last fifteen years, with one of the best forehands we have seen and a great serve Annacone stated. Mentally he has been very serene, which allowed him to play the big moments so well. For a big man [2.03m although he officially claims 1.98m], he moves very well and isn’t afraid to finish at the net with solid volleys. His victory at the 2009 US Open should have been the start of a career in which he would go on to compete for many major titles. He had to spend a lot of time fighting injuries and that’s very difficult emotionally. I hope he can finish on his own terms.”.

The same feeling of Annacone is shared by Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and trainer, the best competitor of all time (and for a handful of days, in addition, the maximum winner of Grand Slam trophies, with 21). “Of all the players on the circuit, Del Potro is one of those who have had the most bad luck. He would have fought to be number 1, he had special conditions for tennis. Good serve, great drive. A very complete player, but he encountered several problems, and constant ones. He had everything to grow, but many injuries came to him. If not, he would have been there. Sure”, pointed out Toni, who always distinguished Juan Martín as a tennis player of the hierarchy, with technical (and emotional) resources to be a danger to his nephew and the other top players.

Del Potro is a chosen one. He symbolizes one of the greatest examples of resilience in high-performance sports. His big return to the circuit in 2016, after hitting rock bottom, was – probably – the most cinematic event in the history of men’s tennis. Even superior to Croatian Goran Ivanisevic, who after losing three Wimbledon finals (1992, 1994 and 1998), collapsed due to a chronic shoulder injury and in 2001, after receiving a wild card and being 125th in the world, conquered the All England. And even more moving than that of the Austrian Thomas Muster, who before playing the Miami 1989 final was run over by a drunk man, was in a wheelchair for months, came back, won Roland Garros 1995 and was number 1 in 1996.<br
On June 19, 2019, on the lawn of Queen’s, Del Potro played his last match (beat Canadian Denis Shapovalov 7-5, 6-4). From that moment he was the protagonist of a horror movie. Until, last September, when he visited the US Open to rally with John McEnroe and meet commercial commitments, he opened the door for the first time to a potential return to the tour. He surprised by slipping that it could be on the brick dust of the ATP in Buenos Aires, where he only participated in 2006, at the start of his professional career. At that time he was 17 years old, he was 155th in the world, he received an invitation and took advantage of it, leaving a pleasant image in his debut: he lost in the first round against the Spanish Juan Carlos Ferrero (three years before he had been leader of the ranking and conquered Roland Garros) by 6-2, 4-6 and 6-4.

After almost a thousand days (965), when many thought he had retired, Del Potro returned to the field for an official match. It was this Tuesday night (not before 8 pm), at the Guillermo Vilas court of the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, where he faced his friend Federico Delbonis, for the first round of the Argentina Open.

He ventured , between tears, that “more than a lap is a farewell”. After the Buenos Aires tournament he plans to play in Rio next week. And then? Only he knows. He will depend, to a large extent, on how the body responds to him and the obligations that are presented to him. Anyway, whatever happens, rest assured: he wrote too many extraordinary chapters.