No matter what happens in Sunday’s U.S. Open men’s final, this finals weekend will be remembered most for the controversy that transpired during 20-year-old Naomi Osaka’s upset defeat of Serena Williams in the ladies championship match.
That is unfortunate because both (3) Juan Martin del Potro and (6) Novak Djokovic have taken the long road back to the U.S. Open final. The Djokovic comeback story has been well documented recently, especially with his win at Wimbledon earlier this year.
However, the del Potro story is pretty incredible as well and deserves a closer look. The big Argentine has flown under the radar for the last two weeks. Still, the fact that he finds himself back in another major final is nothing short of remarkable.
A promising start:
Del Potro’s talent has always been obvious. When he arrived at the 2009 U.S. Open the then 20-year-old was already a six-time titlist at tour level and a top 10 player. He also already possessed one of the most massive forehands the sport has ever seen.
When he defeated Rafael Nadal in the semis and Roger Federer in the final, no one saw it coming. Federer and Nadal were at the peak of their considerable powers nine years ago. It looked like del Potro, not Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic would be the biggest challenger to those two already established all-time greats, but big-time sports are a hard business despite all the glitz and glamour.
A career derailed twice:
After reaching the final of the year-end championships in 2009, Del Potro missed nine months for wrist surgery following the 2010 Australian Open. He was unable to defend his U.S. Open title that year. He also went winless in his return to the tour that fall.
Del Potro rebounded nicely in 2011. He won two titles and returned to the top 15. A bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012 and a Wimbledon semi in 2013 made it look like Del Potro was on his way to fully fulfilling his vast potential, but it was not to be.
Wrist issues limited del Potro to just one Grand Slam event played from the 2014 Australian Open to the 2016 French Open. His ranking slid outside the top 1000 as he contemplated retirement.
The former U.S Open champion reemerged at the Rio Olympics in 2016, winning the silver medal and beating Djokovic and Nadal along the way. His comeback has been a slow and steady build ever since then.
A major contender again:
The two-time Olympic medalist had some flashes of brilliance in 2017, even reaching his first major semifinal in four years, but “Delpo” as he is known the world over, has been better than ever in 2018.
He finally won his first career Masters 1000 title in March, defeating Federer by saving match point in the Indian Wells final. He also reached the semis at the French Open and lost an epic five-setter to Nadal in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. The 29-year-old is also ranked a career-high World No. 3.
Del Potro has been a complete player in 2018 for the first time since his injuries. He is no longer slicing or simply babying the majority of his backhands to protect his wrists. It is clear he is playing without pain or fear of pain.
Now, del Potro sits one win away from a second major title at the same venue where he won his first nearly a decade ago. When you add up both wrists, the total number of surgeries is four.
After his Olympic semifinal win over Nadal in Rio, del Potro said: “I already won silver, that’s good enough for me.” He is very capable of beating Djokovic in Sunday’s final. However, even if he doesn’t, he should apply the same logic he did in Rio after all he has been through.