Never say die is his mantra

Tennis : Juan Martin Del Potro is cautiously making his return from another injury

Never say die is his mantra

The sun was setting when Juan Martín del Potro was finishing up his second practice session a couple of weeks ago, the overhead lights creating eerie shadows across the stadium court at the Delray Beach Tennis Center in Florida.

It was the day before the start of the Delray Beach Open, the ATP Tour event at which del Potro made a triumphant return last year after 11 months away from the game because of wrist surgeries. He chose to begin his 2017 campaign there too. Del Potro was so exhausted after leading Argentina to their first Davis Cup championship last November that he felt he needed to skip an early-season event in Auckland, New Zealand, and the Australian Open in order to recover mentally and physically.

After reaching the semifinals here last year, del Potro rose from No 1,042 in the world to No 38, ending the season by winning a tournament in Stockholm, his first title in 15 months. His greatest achievements of last season gained him no ranking points: a silver medal at the Rio Olympics, where he beat a teary Novak Djokovic in the first round and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, and two five-set victories in Davis Cup matches. The first of those matches, against Andy Murray in the semifinals against Britain, lasted more than five hours, and the other was against Marin Cilic in the final in Zagreb, Croatia.

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, del Potro, currently ranked 42nd, was slugging it out in practice with Jack Sock, a 24-year-old who recently supplanted John Isner as the top-ranked US man. With fewer than a dozen spectators scattered throughout the 3,500-seat stadium, del Potro was swinging freely, alternating between his once-treasured two-handed backhand — the stroke most affected by the three surgeries to his left wrist and one to his right — and the one-handed slice that became his staple last year.

At one point, a young man seated just behind the court, leaned forward and shouted, “Delpo, thanks for coming back.” Del Potro did not answer the fan directly, but responded in his own way. He skipped to the baseline, shadowboxed a two-handed backhand and then took a loopy forehand delivered by Sock and crushed it cross court into the far corner. Then he turned and smiled ever so slightly.

“I have such a high level of respect for him,” Sock said after the session. “He’s one of the good guys in the locker room. And for him to win a Grand Slam, be out for a long time and then come back the way he did last year, well, you have to respect that.”

At 28, del Potro has found a tennis contentment he never thought possible when he was home in 2015, watching “The Simpsons” and “Breaking Bad” on television instead of playing tennis. Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion and former world No 4, is now ever mindful of the frailty of his body.

“I got exhausted after the Davis Cup final,” said del Potro, who fought back from two sets down for the first time in his career to defeat Cilic, 6-7 (4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3, while competing with a broken left pinkie finger sustained early in the fifth set.

“I just couldn’t recover and be competitive so I decided to stop and do a pre-season,'’ he said. “I’m healthy at the moment and that’s important to me. I just want to play tennis whenever I can and wherever I can.”

One of the new fitness regimens del Potro has added is yoga, which he practices every morning, more to gain flexibility and strengthen his wrists than for anything else. He is also working to regain the form on his once-potent two-handed backhand.

Del Potro has been tentative on the two-hander, opting at tense times to go with the more reliable one-handed slice. Fortunately for him, his serve and crushing crosscourt forehand are in working order.

Del Potro said he realised that the Davis Cup win and his US Open title nearly eight years ago may well be the capstones to his career. “In our country the Davis Cup is very special,” he said, aware of the times he opted not to play from 2013 to 2015. “Everybody was expecting us to win the final, for sure, and I felt the pressure and it wasn’t easy for me during the week. That’s why I was so exhausted after.”

The Argentine Davis Cup captain, Daniel Orsanic, is helping del Potro until he names a new permanent coach, which he hopes to do by this month’s Miami Open. “I have never seen him so happy as after winning the Davis Cup,” Orsanic said. “He felt complete. Now he has to stay healthy and look for more challenges like doing really well in the Slams again.”

Del Potro said he learned a lot from the Australian Open final between Roger Federer, 35, and Nadal, 30.

He set his alarm for 5 am at home in Tandil, Argentina, and from his bed, he watched Federer come back from a break down in the fifth set to defeat Nadal in a superb match.

“If they can be 100 percent at that age, then I can do it in my time,” del Potro said before heading off to yet another practice session. “If they can still play hard and fast, so can I.

“Everybody plays good tennis and everybody is strong and fit. The big differences are mental. Roger, Rafa, the top guys, they all have their minds very positive all the time. That’s what I’m trying to do now too.”

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