Juan Martin del Potro: 'To win, first you have to know how to lose'

The Brian Viner Interview: The 6ft 6in Argentine has been brought low by injury since his 2009 US Open win, but is ready to compete with the best again

Friday 20 May 2011 00:00 BST

Only one man in the world has beaten both Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer in the same Grand Slam event, indeed on consecutive days, and despite the rise and rise of Novak Djokovic, so vertiginous that Nadal, winner of five out of the last six French Opens, starts this year's tournament as only the narrowest of favourites, it is not him.

No, it was the 6ft 6in Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, who put first Nadal and then Federer to the sword in the semi-final and final of the 2009 US Open. And as the rumbustious New York crowd saluted his singular achievement with whoops and cheers, it seemed as though the world was at Del Potro's feet, no matter that he has to look further down than most of us to see them. He had become the tallest man ever to win a Grand Slam title, and it seemed likely that there would be several if not many more. He was only 20 years old.

As he basked in the glory, however, he was not to know that he was less on the cusp of fabulous success than intense frustration. Damage to tendons in his right wrist wiped out most of his 2010 season, and his world ranking, once as high as four, duly plummeted. I meet a fellow desperate to reassert his formidable presence at the top table of men's tennis, which he signalled by winning the Estoril Open in Portugal recently. His English is not marvellous, but it is clear that he is a bright and thoughtful young man, for whom such a serious injury could hardly have come at a worse time.

"It is so difficult when you are out for a year, not just because you are not playing, but because other players are still playing," he says. "They are in competition all the time, so when you come in again and try to play them at the same level, with the same intensity, it is very hard." He was sustained, he adds, by a barrage of supportive texts from other top players, among them Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. "That was a nice signal," he says. "It showed they were still thinking of me. That [kind of fraternity] is more important than the actual game. If the others care about you it means you are a good person. For me that's more important than playing good tennis."

This emotional succour did not entirely lift his gloom, however, which was compounded by the time it took for his injury even to be properly diagnosed. "For three or four months I saw many doctors," he tells me. "They couldn't agree. One says I need rest, another says I need surgery. Finally, I saw the right doctor, Richard Berger at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. I had confidence in him. I had surgery, and he fixed it."

Had it crossed his mind that he might never play again, or at least never as wonderfully as before? "If I say not, I would be a liar. You think about everything when you have so much time to think. And the tennis life is very short. But I am really Catholic, and I believe that God knows everything."

I already had an inkling of his religious faith, having seen him intently cross himself on clinching victory. But now he tells me something I didn't know, that there is a deeply poignant dimension to his prayers. "I had a sister who died many years ago, and I believe that she protects me from the sky. She was eight years old. It was a car accident in Argentina. I was five or six, so it was much worse for my parents."

Del Potro was raised in the mountains of Buenos Aires province, in Tandil, a city of little more than 100,000 people, celebrated in tennis circles as the birthplace in the last 40-odd years of no fewer than six men who would later reach the world top 100. Del Potro is the most illustrious of them, but another, Juan Monaco, briefly rose to 14th in the world, wonderful statistics for Tandil but dispiriting reading for the British, our entire country trumped by a smallish South American city.

So what is it about Tandil, I ask, that produces such fine tennis players? And footballers too, for that matter. Mauro Camoranesi, once of Juventus and Italy, grew up in Tandil, as did the Argentina international Mariano Gonzalez. Is it anything the Lawn Tennis Association could learn from? He smiles and shrugs. "I don't know. The beef maybe. And there is a very good coach, Marcelo Gomez, who was my coach when I was young. There are good coaches there, good courts, good gyms, good weather." They are powerful assets.

On his return to Tandil following his triumph at Flushing Meadows, practically the entire populace turned out to welcome him home. He was paraded through the streets on the back of a fire engine, strangely enough, and rather aptly turned on the waterworks. "I was crying. It was amazing. There were 100,000 people on the street, for sure. The tennis life is very short, as I say. And my first goal is always to be a good person. But it was amazing."

It was an amazing reception to mark an amazing achievement; not just the hoisting of the trophy, but the back-to-back defeats of Nadal and Federer. "Yes, that was very difficult in two days," he says, somewhat unnecessarily. "Against Rafa I said to myself, 'Maybe my tournament is done', but then I beat him 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in an hour and a half. So then I said to myself, 'OK, now I am in the final of the best tournament in the world.' To me, the US Open was always the Grand Slam I wanted to win most. And I was close to reaching that goal. But Federer had not lost for five years. I tried not to think about that. I won [an epic five-setter, 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 4-6, 6-2] by taking it point by point."

It was his first Grand Slam final, and the way he dealt with the pressure rather raises the question of why Murray, in his first Grand Slam final, on the same court against the same opponent the previous year, had crumbled. "I don't know. It's very difficult for Murray, because he is the only player from your country. He's a really nice player. For me, he will win Grand Slams. He has everything. He can beat Nadal, Federer, Djokovic on all surfaces. I have never beaten Djokovic. But to win, first you have to know how to lose. Maybe he needs to lose more finals to win one."

Del Potro didn't. Played one, won one, is his Grand Slam finals tally. So how, in more detail, did he cope with the psychological burden of playing Federer in the arena where the great man had not lost since 2003? Was it not like going to Oz and taking on the wizard? A smile. "The night before the final I was talking all night with my friends, on the phone, friends from Tandil I have known since I was a young boy. I couldn't sleep, so I said 'Talk to me all night'. Without that, I would have been very nervous. So we talked for maybe four hours, not about tennis at all."

Winning the US Open, he adds gnomically, "changed everything, and changed nothing. It helped with contracts, tournaments, respect, but the really important things didn't change: my [relationship with my] parents and friends, my routine."

Nonetheless, the sports-mad Argentines took him to their collective hearts and his popularity, at least briefly, rivalled that of some of the nation's favourite footballers, if not perhaps those at the top of the tree.

"Carlos Tevez," says Del Potro, "is loved even more than Lionel Messi. Messi is a better player, and the most famous sportsman in Argentina, but Tevez is even more popular. He's a simple guy, they like that. He is a good friend of mine. In 2009 in London [at the ATP World Tour Finals] Tevez came on court and I played tennis with him for a few minutes. He made a good choice, becoming a soccer player." (He's not kidding; if you look on YouTube, Tevez looks as if he's never held a racket before).

Speaking of different sports, Del Potro's father was a keen amateur rugby player, but his own first love was football. "It was one day when I arrived early at soccer practice, and I had nothing to do, that a friend gave me a tennis racket. I hit a ball against a wall, and then I said to my parents that I wanted to start playing tennis as well. I played both until I was 12 years old, then I chose tennis. But I still love soccer."

If, then, I were to offer him a World Cup winners' medal with Argentina instead of his US Open victory, would he take it? He laughs. "No, I'll still take the US Open. But I think maybe in the future I can play soccer professionally. After my tennis career is over, it is in my mind. I am a centre-forward like Martin Palermo. Do you know him? He plays for Boca Juniors, my team." At the mention of Boca, and Palermo, his voice rises and he sits forward, eyes shining. But then he seems to remind himself what he is and where we are. "First I want to become a better tennis player. To become No 1. But it will take longer, after the injury."

The wrist problem was followed by a torn hip muscle that threatened his participation in the forthcoming French Open. On Wednesday, happily, he declared himself fit for Roland Garros, and after that his thoughts will turn to grass, a surface he has yet to master. He will play at Queen's, then Wimbledon, and dismisses the suggestion that his prodigious height is a disadvantage on grass because of the lower bounce.

"I think it helps me, because of my serve, and my movement. I have played at Queen's twice, but both times I lost against Nadal. He wasn't so good on grass either, at first. But the biggest players are the ones who know how to win on grass, so it will be good this year to see what I can do on that surface. I still have many things to learn, like serve and volley. I'm different from most Argentinian players: I want to get better on grass. And I really like London, when it doesn't rain." He grins. "Maybe Tevez will be there this year."

Juan Martin del Potro will compete against Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick in the AEGON Championships at the Queen's Club, 6-12 June. For more information, go to www.aegonchampionships.com

Del Potro's highs and lows

Born 23 September, 1988, Tandil, Argentina

Professional debut May 2004

Highest ranking No 4 (January 2010)

Current rank No 27

Career titles 9

Grand Slam wins US Open 2009

Began his tennis career at the age of six and made his professional debut against Matias Niemiz in 2004, aged 15.

2005 Turns pro and becomes youngest ever player to feature in top 200.

2006 Grand Slam debut at French Open, losing to Juan Carlos Ferrero

2007 Plays in first Wimbledon, going out to eventual winner Roger Federer

2008 Makes top 10 for first time. Wins first ATP title at Mercedes Cup in Stutt-gart, beating Richard Gasquet, first of four consecutive tournament wins. Loses to Andy Murray in last eight of US Open.

2009 Wins first Grand Slam, beating Roger Federer in US Open final. Finalist in ATP Tour finals.

2010 Achieves career-high ranking of No 4. Misses most of year with wrist injury.

Alex Corrigan

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