Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, is giving American Brian Baker a strong run for the title of Unluckiest ATP Pro. That’s a particularly stinging loss for the game because unlike Baker, Delpo is an established, elite player -- and one of the most well-liked players of any level on the ATP World Tour.
Just 26, del Potro has had to pull the plug on another season in order to undergo surgery on his left wrist.
Back in 2010, he was poised to take the place Andy Murray currently occupies in the Big Four alongside Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Just months earlier, he had pulled off one of the more stunning upsets in tennis history at Flushing Meadows. He handcuffed and steamrolled through Federer at the peak of his powers in the US Open final as the sporting public watched in stunned silence -- and awe.
Del Potro hit that glitzy No. 4 ranking in early January 2011, shortly before the Australian Open. In the ensuing major, he survived three rounds and lost a tense and bitter five-setter to No. 14 Marin Cilic. Then he abruptly announced that the chronic pain in his right wrist had not responded to rest or treatment, and he vanished for the better part of the year to undergo surgery and a long process of rehabilitation.
It took del Potro a long time to come back; he started the following year ranked No. 259 and didn’t make a final until the ATP 250 at Delray Beach, where he won the title over No. 52 Janko Tipsarevic. But by the time Wimbledon ended, he had clawed his way back up to No. 19 and finished the year ranked No. 11.
The following year, del Potro won four titles. More impressively, he had a host of wins over top-10 rivals, including two (in eight matches) over Federer. Del Potro also snatched the bronze medal out of Djokovic’s grasp at the London Olympics. Year-end ranking: No. 7.
Last year was theoretically the one in which del Potro would make another big push to join what had become the elite Big Four -- or turn the posse into a Big Five. He continued to solidify his position. He logged his first win over Nadal since that glorious 2009, and he carved out his first win over Djokovic since their Olympic third-place match. He seemed to be on the cusp of the big, permanent breakthrough.
This was supposed to be a big year for the big (6-foot-6) man with the weak wrists, and nobody can accuse him of not giving it his best shot this year, despite his aching wrist. (He’s right-handed, but he hits a two-handed backhand.)
Del Potro won at Sydney to start 2014, but things quickly began to unravel for him once again. He was beaten in the second round of the Australian Open by No. 62 Roberto Bautista Agut, and that debilitating five-setter punished his left wrist. He played with the pain in Rotterdam, losing in the quarterfinals to Ernests Gulbis. By the time del Potro started in Dubai, his wrist was shot. He quit after losing a first-set tiebreaker in his first-round match with No. 78 Somdev Devvarman.
Hoping against hope, he entered Indian Wells and Miami, but he pulled out of both. Shortly after informing the Miami Masters tournament that he was a nonstarter, he posted the following message on his Facebook page:
"I want to tell you that after a period of medical treatment, in which we tried to be competitive on a tennis court, and following new examinations done today, my doctor Richard Berger, decided that I should have surgery to fix the problem on my left wrist. It will be tomorrow, Monday, 24 March."
Of his travails since that magical September night in 2009, he said: "I experienced a similar situation and I know how hard it is to be out of the tour -- the desire to return, the endless weeks of recovery and how difficult it is to start fighting for the top spots in the rankings again."
This is a huge disappointment to tennis fans because, with the exception of Nadal’s continued excellence, the established order in tennis seems somewhat shaky. Nobody was better positioned to force his way into the conversation at the top of the game than del Potro, and now the gentle giant with Achilles' heels at the ends of his arms can only leave his friends around the world with this message: "The strength you send me and my desire will be crucial during my recovery."
Here’s hoping that his recovery will be a swift and successful one.