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In the four years between his epic exploits on the Olympic tennis courts at London 2012 and Rio 2016, where he won bronze and silver respectively, Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro was mostly sidelined by troublesome wrist injuries. After marking his return with a heroic campaign in Rio, he consolidated his status as a national idol by helping his country win its first Davis Cup.
His 2016 achievements earned him not one but two hero’s welcomes in his home town of Tandil, in the province of Buenos Aires, with thousands of people gathering in front of the town hall on 16 August 2016 to acclaim Del Potro for his feats at the Olympics, and doing so again four months later, after his part in the 3-2 defeat of Croatia in Zagreb in the Davis Cup final. To cap a glorious year, he was also named Comeback Player of the Year at the ATP World Tour Awards.
“The Tower of Tandil” – so called because he stands a lofty 1.98m tall - Del Potro picked up a tennis racquet for the first time at the age of seven.
He would go on to break into the ATP Top 10. He capped his rise to the top at the 2009 US Open, where he showcased his physical and mental strength, devastating forehand and superb defensive game to beat the then world No2 Rafael Nadal in the semi-final and world No1 Roger Federer in a thrilling five-set final (3–6, 7–6, 4–6, 7–6, 6–2). That stunning win seemed to augur a very bright future for the Argentinian, though repeated injury problems would soon check his progress.
After climbing to a career-high No4 in the world rankings in January 2010, Del Potro sustained an injury to his right wrist at the Australian Open that year and was forced to undergo surgery. He returned at the end of the year, having dropped down to 250th in the rankings, and worked hard for three long months to get back to his best.
On top of his game on the courts of Wimbledon at London 2012, Del Potro won his way through to the semi-finals, where he faced Federer in a match that would go down in history as the longest three-setter of the Open Era. In a magnificent, gruelling contest that lasted four hours and 26 minutes, the Swiss prevailed 3-6, 7-6, 19-17.
“It’s tough to talk right now. I feel so sad,” he lamented in the wake of that defeat. “Roger played a fantastic match, though, and he’s a worthy winner. I hope I can lift myself for the mixed doubles. There had to be a winner here today and it’s not an easy situation. It was my turn in 2009 and now it’s his.”
The following day, after he and his compatriot Gisela Dulko had lost their mixed doubles quarter-final, “Delpo” showed his powers of recovery by beating the then world No2 Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-4 to win the bronze and claim Argentina’s first medal of the Games.
“I’m crying but they’re tears of joy,” he said afterwards. “It’s one of the best matches of my career. Words can’t describe it. It’s as big as winning a Grand Slam tournament.” Building on that achievement, he was back in the world Top 10 by the end of the year.
Del Potro maintained his upward trajectory in 2013, winning four ATP tournaments and reaching the last four at Wimbledon before this time injuring his left wrist. Going under the knife three times after March 2014, he would not return to action until February 2016.
“After the London experience I couldn't miss Rio. You never know how many Olympic Games you will get to play,” he said on arriving in Brazil, where he was unseeded, having tumbled down the world rankings.
Del Potro scored a major upset in the first round in Rio, beating the No1 Djokovic 7-6 7-6, thanks in the main to an impressive first-serve percentage of 86%. “It was one of the best matches of my career, perhaps even better than London,” said the Argentinian.
He fought his way through to the semi-finals, where he would wage another epic fight against Nadal, winning 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 after three hours of high-intensity tennis. Waiting for Del Potro in the final was defending champion Andy Murray.
It was to be another gruelling encounter, one that lasted over four hours and in which momentum swayed one way and the next before Murray closed out a 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory. After climbing down from the second step on the podium, Del Potro said it has been the most “incredible” week of his career.
There was much more to come from him in 2016, with Argentina winning through to the Davis Cup final, where they faced Croatia in Zagreb. Right in the thick of the action, Del Potro won the first point of the tie against Ivo Karlovic, before losing the doubles with Leonardo Mayer as the hosts went 2-1 up.
The indefatigable “Tower of Tandil” was involved in yet another classic encounter the following day, coming from two sets to love down against world No6 Marin Cilic to win a five-set marathon that lasted seven minutes short of five hours. Del Potro had his hands on the famous “salad bowl” trophy a few hours later, after Federico Delbonis saw off Karlovic to score the winning point.
“It’s a dream fulfilled and I couldn’t ask for more,” said Del Potro. “I won a medal at the Games and now there’s this historic victory. I can sleep soundly tonight.”