A little more than a year ago, a certain young Argentine seemed to have the tennis world at his feet.
Juan Martin Del Potro was already a record-breaker while he was still a teenager, stringing together the second-longest winning streak by a teenager—23 matches—in the Open era. Only Rafael Nadal had done better.
He already had a Major to his name: the U.S. Open, won while he was only 20.
By the end of 2009, he had reached the final of the World Tour Finals and had a tally of seven titles.
He had become a fixture in the Top Five, residing amongst the elite since the spring of 2009 and had even—very briefly—crept up to No. 4.
And then came the 2010 Australian Open—three unexpectedly tough wins followed by a five-set loss in the fourth round—and that’s where everything ground to a halt. The young man from Tandil injured his right wrist to such an extent that rest and rehabilitation failed to cure the problem, and he underwent surgery last May.
When Del Potro attempted his return to the tour last autumn, there was more bad news. He lost in the first round of two-straight events—in Bangkok and in Tokyo—and called it a day for the rest of the year.
But this likeable, reticent champion is on his way back—and he’s doing it in style. Not content with a gradual return to the tour—a softly-softly approach—he got his eye in with some useful matches in Australia and then headed to North America.
First, he hit the indoor hard courts of San Jose and worked his way to the semifinals. The next week, he was in Memphis and another semifinal. Then in a third consecutive week, he made his tournament-debut in the Floridian heat of Delray Beach and won his first title of the year—indeed, his first title since that U.S. Open 18 months ago.
The style in which he did it was gutsy. Against the top-ranked player, world No. 17 Mardy Fish, Del Potro conceded just six games. Then in the final he faced the Serbian Janko Tipsarevic and, at 1-4 down in the first set, looked as though his intense schedule had caught up with him.
But Del Potro gradually adapted to the different—and difficult—conditions of his first outdoor, daytime match in the three North American tournaments. He pulled the set level, saved five break points in the 10th game and finally converted his own third set point.
In the second set, he broke Tipsarevic to go 3-2 up and fought off three more break points in the next game. It took him the better part of two hours, but Del Potro eventually won the match, 6-4, 6-4, and he did so without dropping a set or reaching a tie-break.
The good news for the Argentine is the impact of this run on his rankings. So low had he dropped that he had to enter these events as a wild card. At San Jose, with his protected ranking at an end, he was down at 484. By Memphis he was up to 298. By Florida, he had clambered to 166. This week, he is back in the top 100 at 89.
With no points to defend for the rest of the year, his rise through the rankings can continue to surge. So it may be the work of just a few months to put on the 1,000 or so points that would catapult him back inside the Top 20. Once there, he can benefit from seeding, avoid the big names until deep into the draw, and pick up still more points.
There does, though, appear to be something a little different about the Del Potro embarking on what seems like his second career on the tour.
No longer does he sport the shapeless, ill-fitting, unflattering vest and droopy shorts of a year ago. He has reinvented himself in true Nike tradition in a sharp, shaped, sleeved T and neat black shorts.
Everything from bandana to sweats to footwear matches to the nth degree. It is nothing short of the transformation that fellow Nike aficionado underwent at precisely the same age: 22.
Nadal opened his 2009 season ready to take on a new image. He discarded his near-iconic sleeveless vest and pirate pants in favor of striking striped polos and matching accessories.
He had just completed a season in which he’d won his first non-Paris Major—Wimbledon—and had topped the rankings for the first time. He wanted to dress the part. It was less a statement on his ability, his impact, his looks or his success and more a statement about his perception of himself: confident.
The transition of Del Potro may be the outward expression of a similar "graduation."
By adopting Nike’s not so self-consciously titled "Fearless Rafa Fuego Crew"—or something very like it—he is standing tall, in flame-orange, happy to be noticed and that is some distance from the 20-year-old almost overwhelmed by the newfound fame that accompanied his U.S. Open triumph.
Del Potro was the youngest player in the Top 200 in 2005 at 17, the youngest in the Top 100 in 2006 at 18, the youngest in the Top 50 in 2007 at 19 and the youngest in the Top 10 in 2008 at 20. He always looked and played older than his tender years.
Now he begins to look his age. Now he looks—put simply—happier in his skin.
After Delray Beach, Del Potro said, “My goal at the moment is to improve my game day by day. It was my goal to be No. 1 two years ago, but I don’t know if I can put that as my goal again because I don’t know how far my level can go.”
Well, to the outside observer, it looks as though the re-launched Del Potro can go just as far as he did at 20—and perhaps further. And maybe he will start where he did back then: in North America, culminating in New York.