Contemplating retirement at the end of 2015, Juan Martin del Potro nearly threw in the towel on a once-promising career sadly halted by injuries.
Several months later, he finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Hope has imbued the gentle Argentine once again thanks to his inspiring run at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. With a cathartic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) takedown of No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round, Del Potro announced to the world that he’s still a forced to be feared.
Headed toward becoming another “what could have been” story, that win could instead ignite his comeback as he attempts to construct a successful second act.
Vintage Del Potro showed up against Djokovic. The booming serves. The earth-shattering forehands. The baseline resilience. From the first ball, he had the Serbian on the ropes, using relentless aggression and absurd power to hit Djokovic off the court.
The sport’s greatest returner didn’t offer much resistance to slow the Del Potro blitzkrieg. Forehands that probably registered on the Richter scale sent Djokovic to a shocking defeat in a repeat of their bronze-medal match from 2012, stifling his dream of completing a career Golden Slam.
Nothing could stop Del Potro on this magical day, not even a broken elevator.
"I think this victory, it’s more big for me because I know my present," Del Potro told the New York Times' Christopher Clarey. "I know how tough it was to come back in tennis after my third surgery on the wrist, and I think I played one of the best matches of my career."
When it was over, both men shared an emotional moment at net that spoke volumes about the respect they have for one another:
I am dead. https://t.co/d0wv751r2Z— Ricky Dimon (@Dimonator) August 8, 2016
A teary-eyed Djokovic sauntered away, leaving a jubilant Del Potro to raise his arms in celebration. After the emotional and physical journey he endured just to play again, this performance showcased the immense talent still brewing inside the 27-year-old.
Before the wrist problems began, Del Potro was already a Grand Slam champion, having outlasted Roger Federer in five thrilling sets for the 2009 U.S. Open title. Later finishing as runner-up at the subsequent year-end finals, he had the look of someone destined for long-term greatness. The Big Four seemed like it would morph into the Big Five.
With his unparalleled power, Del Potro didn't back down when facing tennis royalty like Federer and Rafael Nadal—he took the fight right to them and showed himself a worthy adversary. His trademark tomahawk forehand proved a weapon not even the best defenders could stop.
But his body paid a price for that early ascent.
Over the next five years, Del Potro would undergo four wrist surgeries, one for the right and three for the left. He essentially missed three entire seasons during that span.
From 2011 to 2013, he enjoyed a relatively clean bill of health and slowly began regaining his rhythm. Highlighted by that bronze medal and a stirring semifinal performance at Wimbledon the following year, Del Potro was on the verge of winning another major title.
That momentum was ripped away from him at the start of 2014 when he hurt his left wrist. Combined, he'd play only 14 matches the next two years as his career hung on by a thread.
A third operation on that wrist last June nearly sidelined him for good. Yet his love for the game wouldn't allow him to walk away. Even if he had to alter his game, Del Potro was determined to make it work.
He eased himself back into action this past February; his first tournament was the Delray Beach Open. At the time, he sat at No. 1,045 in the rankings. But that didn't matter to him. Del Potro was happy to compete again.
The first few months of his comeback went as you'd expect from a guy returning after such a long layoff. Only recently has he started to show flashes of the old Del Potro.
On the heels of a semifinal run in Stuttgart, he traveled to Wimbledon—the first Grand Slam event he was able to play since the 2014 Australian Open. Though he'd lose in the third round, he'd punctuate his stay there with his first top-10 win in over two years, a four-set bludgeoning of fourth seed Stan Wawrinka.
Still unable to hit backhands with confidence, Del Potro used his slice effectively and frustrated Wawrinka. It turns out that match was just a precursor for what he did to Djokovic in Rio de Janeiro.
Though that backhand wing is very much a work in progress, his serve and forehand are so massive that he can get by anyway. All that tantalizing power, however, masks his greatest asset: his heart.
It was clear by his raw emotions in the Djokovic match just how much the game means to him. He's been through it all, and surviving those experiences made him all the more resilient.
A little over 15 hours later (and after a doubles match with partner Maximo Gonzalez), he followed up the Djokovic upset with a tough three-set win over Joao Sousa. Now, a showdown with Taro Daniel is all that separates him from the quarterfinals in Rio de Janeiro. Claiming another medal for Argentina is a realistic possibility.
Currently ranked 141st, Del Potro has a long way to go to crack the Top 10 again. With no points on the line, his Olympics result won't move him up any further. But if the level he's displaying is a sign of things to come, that climb took a big first step in the right direction.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.