Del Potro an unfortunate example of the physical toll top-class tennis can take

Decimated US Open field suggests Djokovic can complete a calendar Grand Slam

 Juan Martin Del Potro: seemed to have the tennis world at his feet when he won the US Open in 2009 but his career has since been blighted by a series of injuries.  Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty  Images

Juan Martin Del Potro: seemed to have the tennis world at his feet when he won the US Open in 2009 but his career has since been blighted by a series of injuries. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

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So much pathos surrounds Juan Martin del Potro’s injury-wrecked tennis career that it makes for perhaps the ultimate ‘what might have been’ in sport.

It is a dozen years since the ‘Big Three’ that came to define the sport – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – all made the US Open semi-finals in New York. None of them won it.

Instead a 6ft6in tyro from Argentina possessed of a forehand like a canon defeated Nadal in the semis before getting the better of Federer in a five-set final.

At the time it put Del Potro level with Djokovic on a Grand Slam title apiece. Pressed as to which of them would go on to greatness there probably would have been a majority opting for the ‘Tower of Tandil’. Not even 21 he looked the future of the game.

Instead of which it has been his misfortune to become an exemplar of both the physical toll tennis takes as well as proof of how baleful the injury fates can be when they conspire against you.

Just at the point of career take-off persistent pain in his right wrist demanded surgery. The momentum of that maiden Slam success had to be parked. Three more surgeries on the other wrist quickly followed.

Apart from not being able to run there could hardly be an injury more likely to undermine a tennis player’s confidence. Barely able to hold a racket the ‘Delpo’ era stalled before it had begun.

Betrayed by his body, there was no disputing the Argentine’s mental resolve. Repeated physical breakdowns preventing a sustained run of matches didn’t stop del Potro from repeatedly picking up the pieces. And in brief windows of opportunity came tantalising glimpses of what he could still do.

In the first round of the Rio Olympics, he beat Djokovic in the first round before losing in the final to Andy Murray. Barely possessed of a functioning backhand due to the wrist issues del Potro still got back to world No 3, making the 2018 US Open final in 2018.

A month afterwards however a simple slip during a match saw him badly damage his right knee. Yet again he fought back only to shatter his kneecap at the 2019 Queens Tournament. There have been four surgeries since, making eight in all. He hasn’t played a match in over two years.

Psychological toll

It means that for half the time since his US Open triumph del Potro has been out of action. For much of the other half it’s hard not to suspect he could never compete at full capacity. Such has been the psychological toll that he has admitted to times of depression. Yet he perseveres.

So when this year’s US Open starts on Monday, and Djokovic takes a first step towards history and a potential first calendar Grand Slam in over half a century, his old rival will be far from the New York limelight tentatively trying to take the first steps towards another comeback.

He isn’t short of company. Rarely if ever can the sidelines have been filled with so much other elite talent ahead of a grand slam. Those who reckon it is Djokovic’s destiny to emulate Rod Laver’s 1969 clean-sweep can take encouragement from the way injury has ravaged his main opposition.

Federer (knee) and Nadal (foot)are out for the long-term. Defending champion Dominic Thiem is also out for the year with a wrist problem. The 2016 champion Stan Warwinka hasn’t played since March because of an issue with his foot.

There isn’t a single other Major winner left to try and foil Djokovic apart from Andy Murray. But his presence only underlines how overwhelming the demands of getting to the top of the tennis tree can be.

That the Scot briefly turned the top of the men’s game into a legitimate ‘Big Four’ remains a stunning achievement. But the physical toll required in managing it is stamped all over the tortuous route he has subsequently had to take in order to just compete again.

It’s a rate of attrition that has turned the coming fortnight into a men’s tournament more notable for who isn’t there than is.

There is nothing Djokovic can do about that especially since he has admitted to having to deal with unspecified injuries himself, problems that he has suggested prevented him pulling off a ‘Golden Slam’ at the Olympics. All anyone can do is beat who’s in front of them.

There is also the reality that resilience is a hallmark of almost every great champion. But there’s no point pretending that hollowed out fields, while significantly aiding Djokovic’s shot at history this time, also present a much wider problem for the sport in terms of diluted public interest.

Star attractions

Tennis authorities want their star attractions on court rather than in rehab. Consequently they should surely be examining the demands put on players including asking questions about the stamina-sapping nature of the modern game.

So too the unrelenting tournament treadmill of gathering vital world-ranking points. Perhaps in need of most urgent examination of all is the sustainability of a schedule where even a blank December is spent preparing for the following month’s Slam in Australia.

Compressing the calendar into a shorter time-frame is a tough commercial ask. But how sellable is the prospect of a game with its greatest names regularly crocked on the sidelines.

It is del Potro’s sad fate to be a glaring example. If Murray can at least console himself with knowing he maximised his potential, the Argentine has been left with the frustration of what might have been. It’s an unenviable lot and one to have his contemporaries counting lots of lucky stars.

It is surely in tennis’s self-interest though to examine how best to make it a singular scare-story. The spotlight should always be on who’s playing – not who isn’t. Dismissing this decimated US Open field as unfortunate coincidence sounds like wishful thinking.

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