Juan Martin del Potro not ready for the next chapter of his life, not yet anyway

DELAY BEACH, Fla. -- Athletes are often confused as to what direction life will take when their sports careers come to a conclusion, but that's not the case for Juan Martin del Potro.

The 30-year-old knows exactly where his future leads, but that destiny, despite many serious injuries the past decade, remains in the distance. In his heart, the 2009 US Open champion believes it's not yet time to become a full-time farmer, because there's more tennis to play.

This is a significant admission by the Argentinian as he returns from injury at the Delray Beach Open, a tournament where he's started his season three of the past four years.

Prior to arriving in Delray this week he's been on a four-month sabbatical precipitated by his fracturing his kneecap during a third-round match at the Shanghai Rolex Masters last October.

"I'm feeling good," Del Potro told ESPN.com. "I'm excited to be playing once again. It means something special to myself. This is going to be a big opportunity to see how my knee works.

"It was not easy to motivate myself [to do rehab] because it's a lot of work, but I had a good team behind me, friends and family, who tried to cheer me up every day. I have the motivation to start again the year, but I know how difficult it is going to be."

The initial assessment delivered good news. The top-seeded Del Potro, armed with his trademark power forehand and many deft backhand slices, scored a 6-3, 7-5 win over Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan in front of a crowd heavily peppered with Argentinian fans repeatedly chanting "Ole, Ole, Ole, Delpo, Delpo."

His second-round encounter, Thursday night, against American Reilly Opelka, who won his first career title at the New York Open last week, will likely furnish a better glimpse as to where Del Potro's game currently stands.

He acknowledges he's only been practicing with normal intensity the past two weeks and had his first practice session with a tour-caliber player upon his arrival in Florida. His plan is to have no expectations this week at Delray, where he won the title in 2011, and he aims to be 100 percent next month when he arrives at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells to defend his title.

If there's one aspect of his career that Del Potro has more experience than preferred, it would be in dealing with injuries and the drudgery of rehabilitation.

He spent a few years as a regular patient at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he endured multiple wrist surgeries. His right wrist was repaired in 2010 and he had three left wrist surgeries between 2014 and 2015. During this time period, he contemplated retirement but never could give up the dream of playing top-level tennis again.

By 2016, he was recording more special memories, which would culminate with many tears of joy. During that year, he led Argentina to its first Davis Cup title and stood on the Olympic podium with a silver medal draped around his neck.

"They are all different moments of my life," he said, speaking about his most prominent achievements. "I was a young guy when I won the US Open, beating Rafa and Roger. I think I was the first player to beat both in the Slams. Then I had my wrist problems, and I never expected to be at a high level again. I won the silver medal in Rio, which was special for an Argentinian player to win in Brazil and the people went crazy watching my tennis. And then we won the Davis Cup for the first time in history for my country. It was a fantastic year in 2016."

Before his recent kneecap injury, Del Potro was having a great 2018 season. He posted a career-high No. 3 ranking and made his way to a second career US Open final, where he lost to an in-form, seemingly untouchable Novak Djokovic.

"It was amazing," Del Potro said. "I had a great tournament and a great time playing in front of my friends. It was a special tournament because I felt like everybody wanted to see me win that tournament, but Novak was great. But I had another great moment from my favorite tournament on tour."

It's certainly his love of the game that still motivates Del Potro and allows him to cope with the constant travel and separation from his family. But he knows one day, sooner than later, he will permanently go home, where his mother teaches literature and his father, a veterinarian, has helped inspire the next chapter of his life.

"Right now, I have a little bit of a farm with different animals," he said. "I don't like to talk about that, but everyone knows in Argentina how I like to work with the animals and with the farm. It is something different to the other players, but I like to be on the farm. I know that that's going to be my life after tennis."