Before Sunday night, 28-year-old Argentine tennis player Juan Martin Del Potro, who has missed the last two seasons due to an extensive list of unfortunate injuries, a former US Open champion, had never won a singles’ match in a Davis Cup final. This was his third appearance for Argentina in the final after 2008 and 2011 – both of which they lost to Spain, where Del Potro, then at the peak of his powers, lost matches to Feliciano Lopez in 2008, David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal in 2011. Before that, Argentina had lost to Russia in 2006 final, and the United States in 1981 final. They were perpetual bridesmaids, just like they’ve been in world football since 1986 despite the presence of Lionel Messi.
However, at Zagreb on Sunday, Del Potro distracted his country from their footballing woes (they are currently 4th in the South American World Cup qualifiers). And he did it in the most sensational way possible. Down 2-1 in the tie, and two sets down in his reverse singles match against former US Open Champion Marin Cilic, Del Potro – who has beaten Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal this year on his comeback from a long layoff – made a stunning comeback, winning the final three sets in front of a capacity crowd that included 1500 traveling fans and a certain Diego Maradona. It was a thrilling 5-hour match and not the first time Cilic had lost this year after leading two sets (Wimbledon against Roger Federer in the quarterfinals), but it wasn’t the decider.
Argentina simply leveled with Croatia 2-2 with this victory, leaving it up to the 41-ranked Federico Delbonis to pull off the decider against the veteran giant, Ivo Karlovic. And he did, in three trailblazing sets after getting on top of Karlovic’s serve, winning it for his country heroically in their 5th final. This has been a season of firsts for many in tennis – Andy Murray reaching no.1, Djokovic winning the Golden Slam in Paris, Federer dropping out of the top 10 for the first time since 2002, and now Argentina finally getting their due. Del Potro had defeated Murray in the singles rubber in the quarterfinals, and looked ominous in all the non-ATP tournaments this year – Olympics included.
He has long been regarded as the only tennis player who is able to defeat the top 4 on his day and was once the next big hope in 2009 when he defeated an unbeatable Federer in the US Open final in five sets. Back then, he was the only player to break into the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic stranglehold. Since then, Marin Cilic did it once in 2014, and Stan Wawrinka has done it thrice in the last three years. But there is virtually nobody like Del Potro and his big heart, his aching body and an outstanding spirit in the face of adversity. Many thought they had seen the last of him back in 2014 with his final wrist injury. But he came back this year as if he was never away, still managing to defeat the top-ranked players. He has won an Olympic bronze medal (2012), a silver (2016), and now a Davis Cup.
This is a perfect end to his season – one that has turned into far more than a comeback, which will enable him to start the 2017 season where he rightfully belongs: as one of the favorites. His consistency is only a point or two away, and now that he has achieved more than he planned to (he is winning, not simply participating in his ‘bonus life’ stage), this is only good news for a sport slowly rewarding its journeymen, its underappreciated warriors who have long been in the shadows of the best. We’ve seen the greatest of our generation in three different players; now it’s time to see the second bests taking over the mantle by simply outlasting their contemporaries.
Oh, tennis is the beautiful game.