All The World’s A Stage, And Juan Martin Is One Hell Of A Player
This time last year Juan Martin del Potro was well known in the tennis world. Having made his mark during the US Open series, he followed it up with a quater final showing at the US Open. Rolling forward to Wimbledon this year, Juan had made a further mark on the tennis world. He had not, however, made his mark on the casual fan. He had a fairly small but loyal fanbase, and little media interest. The giant from Tandil had nothing of the popularity of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, and lacked the hype of Andy Murray. He progressed through the draws quietly and efficiently, and although he had disposed of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray in 2009, he was not considered a huge threat for the US Open. A dark horse, yes, but not much more.
How wrong the masses were.
Juan Martin won the US Open in a five set victory over Federer, dispatching of Nadal along the way. But who is this 6’6 Spanish speaking, strangely good looking man with the huge forehand and rock-solid backhand? We all know his strong baseline game, but what about the person behind it? This is my take, as a huge fan, on Juan Martin del Potro.
When del Potro beat Federer at the Open this year I witnessed something I don’t think I ever have before. A lack of bitterness, sadness, and downright moodiness from Federer fans. When Federer loses a slam final, (hello, 2008), his fans, myself included, generally go into a worldwide sulk. We blame his backhand, his forehand, his serve, we get defensive, we hate on his conquerer. Federer fans, much like Federer himself, hate losing. Why wouldn’t we? We support someone who wins alot, the most, in fact. Obviously, coming first is something we naturally enjoy. Yet when Federer lost to del Potro this year, we seemed to stay away from the abysmal first serve percentage and eleven double faults. In fact, most of us seemed to get over it pretty quickly. Federer himself said this one would not be hard to get over. Why? Sure, fifteen grand slams and twins help, but I believe there is a second reason. Roger Federer fans like Juan Martin. Why are we drawn to him over say, Murray, Nadal, or Djokovic? The answer lies in his quiet, unassuming, demeanour.
Del Potro has, first and foremost, a massive respect for the players ranked above him. He is seemingly faultless in his praise for Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. He repeats constantly, almost like a stuck record, that if he wants to keep winning and be like them, he has to improve alot. In his victory speech Juan said one of his two goals was to be like Federer. Juan is Nadal-like in his modesty. He is humble beyond belief, and yet, like Nadal, he is learning not to fear those above him.
Del Potro is learning how to fight. He is aquiring a mentality worthy of a grand slam champion, one Murray lacks. He remains even tempered, even saying that the reason he managed to stop himself throwing his toys in the final was thinking of who he was playing. Del Potro can be summed up through his public persona in three words; modest, determined, and respectful.
He also absolutely loves tennis. Here is a man who plays with passionate pride. A man who, much like Roger himself, cries when he wins and cries when he loses. He called his victory over Nadal the greatest day of his life. It was promptly surpassed a day later when he held up the trophy. Tears flowing, Juan confessed he had ‘no words’.
I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours with del Potro after his win in Auckland this year. I first met him on the street, where, by the way, he stands out like a whale in a swimming pool. He was with his coach and agent and was very obliging for an autograph and photo, even chatting to my brother a little about that night’s plans. I was ridiculously lucky to see him again later that night at the Auckland casino and spent a few hours chatting to him. I wouldn’t even begin to claim to have uncovered any of Juan, who is mainly withdrawn and surronded in mystery, but maybe I learnt a little.
Firstly, he really does have that much respect for the greats. I asked him about Roger and was met wih a thumbs up and one of many lop-sided grins. Murray was an emphatic and hilerious no. I completely regret not asking him about Nadal, but he considered Federer the favourite for the Aussie Open. In fact, he considers Federer the favourite, ‘always’. Juan asked me if I was his favourite, and I replied that no, Federer was. This was met only by approval, but when I mentioned Gulbis was also a favourite of mine it was met with disgust. Juan has since surpassed Gulbis, understandably, in my own personal ranking system.
Juan really does seem to try and make himself small. He says little and seems to have mastered the art of hunching over to try and appear a normal height. He can be so quiet I was wondering if I was welcome, and would have left if he didn’t tell me to stay. He lacks charm, but that lopsided grin works wonders. He seems to have a great respect for his coach, who is both charming and friendly. I have heard Juan is very ‘teachable’, and indeed, he was worried Franco would be mad at him for staying out too late and losing two grand on roulette.
One thing that people should know about Juan, and the one thing I will always take away from our meeting, was that despite all his modesty and his humbleness, he is very confident and determined. When just past midnight he decided to go to sleep, I proclaimed that it was early. ‘ I am tired, I have had a big day and have to go to Australia tomorrow. I have to sleep for the Open. I want to win it.’ That last statement says it all. Despite his shyness, his modesty, and his lack of charm, Juan wants to win.
Lucky for him, winning seems to agree with him.
Happy 21st Birthday, Juan Martin del Potro.