There could be a statistical and diagnostic manual of Juan Martin del Potro’s 7-6 (3), 6-2, 6-3 third-round U.S. Open victory over veteran David Ferrer Saturday. Points won on 81 percent of first serves. Ninety-four percent of returns in play. Offensive baseline style. Rocking forehand. Unlikely quickness for a 6-6 fellow.
More compelling, though, may be del Potro’s larger tale of physical redemption and the embrace of support offered by fellow players and fans alike. His is a what-might-have-been narrative, a major-tournament champion at 20 who since has been through four wrist operations and two extended forced sabbaticals from the game.
His is 27 now, so often away from scene, yet still enormously popular. Even when he sent fan favorite Andy Roddick into retirement with a fourth-round victory at the 2012 Open, del Potro was applauded for graciously joining fans in saluting Roddick and deferring to Roddick for a post-match speech to the crowd.
For Saturday’s match, spectators filled every one of the 10,103 seats in Louis Armstrong Stadium, hundreds more stood two and three deep on the upper walkways and easily another two thousand were stuck in lines attempting to get in.
Ex-pats and visitors from del Potro’s Argentine home were in clear evidence, serenading del Potro with “Ole, Ole, Ole” chants. As he had done after winning the Open in 2009, del Potro concluded his on-court interview by asking if he could say a few words in Spanish to the fans.
“This crowd, this stadium, this atmosphere — it’s so great,” del Potro said. “I’m so excited to play and show my tennis again. I don’t mind if I win or if I lose, I just want to play tennis again.”
Since that breakthrough 2009 title, del Potro has missed 13 Grand Slam events because of injury and recuperation, including the last three majors in 2014, all four in 2015 and the first two this year. His absence caused his ranking to plummet to 142n, so he needed a wild card from Open officials to enter the main draw this time.
If there was controversy over that decision, it didn’t come from the biggest names in the sport, and certainly not from del Potro’s second-round victim, American Steve Johnson. “Not once did I say he didn’t deserve it,” Johnson said.
“Look, the guy won here,” Johnson said. “He’s not No. 142 in the world by any means. The guy’s a tennis player and a damn good one at that. It’s only a matter of time, if he can stay healthy—and hopefully he does—because he’s good to have around the tour.”
Serb veteran Janko Tipsarevic, also back from a lengthy absence because of serious illness and injury, said that “the only guy on the tour who can actually relate to the pain and suffering I went through is Juan Martin del Potro. We ended up on a practice court at Wimbledon, more than practicing, talking about everything that’s happened. We were interrupting each other moments of depression and sadness, not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Yesterday against Ferrer, the 34-year-old Spaniard seeded 11th, del Potro demonstrated his recovery powers on-court, scrambling back from a 2-5 first-set deficit to force a tiebreak, of which del Potro quickly took control with his heavy forehand. He finished with a service winner.
Throughout, the crowd was decidedly in del Potro’s corner, which didn’t faze Ferrer in the least. “You know, this is a show,” he said. “And anyway, Juan Martin was better. He’s always a very good player.”
And, by all indications, a beloved man of the people.