2016 | The Year Of The Underdog - Story No 2

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2016 | The Year Of The Underdog - Story No 2

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Amlan Majumdar

12/25/2016

The second in our list of underdog stories is Argentine tennis star Juan Martin Del Potro for making an incredible comeback in 2016 after contemplating retirement due to a chronic wrist injury. Despite all the struggle, an Olympic silver medal and a Davis Cup title are nothing less of sensational.

“Last year I was close to retiring from tennis,” Del Potro said during an interview earlier this year. Thankfully for the sport, and the thousands of Del Potro fans across the world, the Argentine did not go through with that decision. It must have been hard not to, though. It must have been difficult for him to find motivation every morning for almost three straight years. It must have been arduous for him to pick up the racquet every day knowing he might not ever be the same again. It must have been painful to sit in front of the television and see the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal dominate the circuit and win point after point, match after match, and trophy after trophy. He could have been in one of their places. He was supposed to be one among them.

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When he became the first player to defeat both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the same major, in back-to-back matches no less, on his way to win the 2009 US Open, the tennis world welcomed a player who was supposed upset the apple cart. He was expected to demolish the established order at the top. He had the game to do so. A sledgehammer-like forehand, and a 6ft 6in-frame despite which he could cover the court like the smaller men in the circuit. Most importantly, despite his built, he carried himself with an endearing personality, charm that could have rivalled even the Swiss maestro – a gentle giant. Emotions often got the better of him on the court, much like it did for Federer in his early days, but it is those naked emotions that also won him matches, that made people fall in love with him, and have now helped him return to the court once again. A journey from being the World no.4 to the World no.1045 to the World no.38.

February – A decent start

He returned in February earlier this year and reached his first semifinal of a tournament since 2014, albeit at the Delray Beach Open. He lost to the eventual winner Sam Querrey, and it was evident that the four wrist surgeries he had undergone hade left their imprints on his game. Three of those surgeries were on the 28-year-old’s left wrist – the one which he used to generate all of the power on his smashing backhand. A weapon which was highly feared in the circuit was now reduced to lowly slices. He was unable to hit them with any conviction. It was apparent that Del Potro can no longer just blast his opponents off the court. His forehand was still firing those missiles, though.

July – First big scalp

As the strawberries and cream returned to the Wimbledon, so did Del Potro. The grass has never been his favorite surface. In fact, Del Potro has faced a lot of early exits at The Championships, and it was his first grass tournament in three years. After making his way past Stephane Robert in the first round, Del Potro stumbled upon the fourth seed Stan Wawrinka, and it seemed like another second-round exit was on the cards. One of the best backhands in the game went up against one which was a pale shadow of its former self.

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However, Del Potro showed that he can still use it effectively. His low slices caused Wawrinka a lot of problems, and he used it almost as a complement to his big forehand strokes. The Argentine surprised the Swiss and defeated him in four sets 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 to enter the third round. It was their first clash in four years, and in the post-match press conference, Wawrinka said how happy the whole locker-room was to see Del Potro back in action. “It’s great for tennis to see him back,” Wawrinka said. “He’s a great guy, a really good player and a big champion. He was so unlucky with all the injury he had for many years. We just all hope that he can be free of injury now and play well this year and the next year.”

As for Del Potro, he was just happy playing the game again. “I don’t know if I can be in the top positions again. But if not, I will be happy just to be playing tennis again,” he said. He went on lose to Lucas Pouille in the next round, but the world stood up and took notice.

August – Nadal and Djokovic conquered

The Olympics arrived in South America this summer, and thousands of Argentines made their way to Rio to cheer Del Potro on. Four years back, he had won the bronze medal after defeating Novak Djokovic, but a lot had changed since then. The Serb was a different beast, and Del Potro faced him in the first round itself. After an intriguing baseline battle, it was the Argentine who came out on the top and shocked the world. But almost as soon as he stopped celebrating, he was up against a rejuvenated Rafael Nadal. However, the Spaniard, also struggling with injuries recently, was still far from his best, and Del Potro dispatched him as well to set up a clash in the final with Andy Murray.

READ :2016 | The Year Of The Underdog - Story No 1

After battling on the court for four hours, Murray crossed the line 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5. It took the best of the Brit and some more to stop Del Potro, as he went on to defend his gold medal from the last edition. Del Potro walked away with the silver, but more importantly, with the belief that he can still compete with the best in the game.

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September – Wawrinka’s revenge

Del Potro walked into the US Open with a lot of confidence and a wild card entry. After getting past the young and talented Dominic Thiem who was forced to retired, he suddenly found himself in the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam where he faced Wawrinka once again. This time, though, the Swiss came prepared, and Del Potro struggled to find a way past him. At the brink of the defeat, he could not hold back his tears when the whole of the stadium stood up and chanted his name. He wiped his tears and served the final game. The Flushing Meadows clearly remembers his brilliance all those years back, and he walked away with a promise that he will be back.

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November/ December – Davis Cup heroics

There was a risk of this becoming the ‘nearly’ year for Del Potro, but the Davis Cup handed him his final opportunity to win it big on his return. Argentina have had a history of failing in the final stages of the competition, and the nation looked towards their revived hero with anticipated breath once again. Del Potro himself has been a part of two final defeats, and to take his team past that stage a monumental task awaited him. He had to defeat Andy Murray in a singles rubber in the UK – something no one else had done before him. But Del Potro was always built to take on such records and break them. At the end of a backbreaking contest, which lasted five hours and seven minutes – the longest in Murray’s career – Del Potro defeated the British No.1.

In the final, Argentina were up against Croatia, and Del Potro had lost the first two sets to the imposing Marin Cilic. It appeared it would once again be heartbreak for the 28-year-old, who had Diego Maradona cheering him on from the stands. However, Del Potro managed to turn it around almost miraculously and that too with a broken finger, he later revealed. In another over-five-hours contest, Del Potro defeated Cilic 6-7, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3, and Federico Delbonis's subsequent victory over Ivo Karlovic gave Argentina their first-ever Davis Cup trophy. There were tears once again, but this time for a different reason altogether.

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There are still doubts on whether he will participate at the Australian Open next season as he looks to recover from the injury he received in that final. But he will be back sooner rather than later. The man who was so close to giving up, the man whose game has been drastically restructured due to all the injuries, has shown the heart of a champion this year, and he will be back for more.

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