It had taken Juan Martin Del Potro three hours and 50 minutes to get past Marin Cilic, and nine years and four wrist surgeries to get back to the semi-finals of the French Open.
“Well this is tough to speak, now,” said an emotional Del Potro during the on-court interview with former French player Fabrice Santoro. “It has been a long time without good feelings on my body. I made three surgeries in my left wrist and I was close to quit(ting) this sport. Now I don't have any words to describe this moment.”
As the tall Argentine spluttered these words out, in between sobs, the fans kept roaring his name on. Just like they have for every match he plays since he returned to the tour in 2016 – after undergoing two surgeries on his left wrist the previous year. Forever the comeback kid, Del Potro is the perpetual fan favourite. They love him not just for his game – and there is much to love about it—but also for his constant tussle with athletic mortality. His fragile wrists belying the power they generate for those whiplash shots.
He needed a few of those, as he overcame third seed Cilic 7-6 (5), 7-5, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarter-finals of the French Open, which was spread over two days, on a sunny Thursday afternoon.
Del Potro, 29, whose flat groundstrokes don’t zip on clay courts as they do on harder surfaces, had advanced to the last eight with a loss of just one set. However, his match against Cilic was billed as a big-hitting bonanza. Rivals since their junior days, the two players’ life and career have a curious symmetry.
They were born on different continents but within the space of five days. Del Potro and Cilic both stand at 6’6 and turned pro in 2005. In an age of grinders, they singe opponents with streaking winners. They have both won the US Open title – Del Potro in 2009 and Cilic in 2014—which happens to be their only Grand Slam title till date.
But the one stat, and it could be the most important one, which puts the Argentine well ahead is the 11-2 win-loss record he holds over Cilic. Del Potro not only has the ability to raise his game against the big Croat, but also preys on Cilic’s vulnerabilities better than most. Through the years, Cilic has built a reputation as one of the most cerebral players, susceptible to overthinking and doubting himself. He can emotionally fold on a tennis court faster than his game should allow.
A shining example of that was Del Potro’s epic five-set win against the Croat in the final of Davis Cup 2016. After playing two flawless sets, Cilic stuttered at the first whiff of a rebellion. Once Del Potro started answering fire with fire—which is usually just a matter of time with the Argentine—Cilic inexplicably wilted. That Davis Cup win, which paved the way for a historic maiden title for Argentina, helped Del Potro win the ATP Comeback Player of the Year award – the second of his career.
The upside of Del Potro’s countless comebacks from injuries is that he doesn’t take anything in the sport for granted now. Neither defeats, nor triumphs. And that joy of playing as well as he can, as long as his body allows him to, resonates with the fans.
And chants of ‘Delpo, Delpo’ once again rang around the half-filled Suzanne Lenglen court on Thursday, as he resumed the contest with Cilic at 6-6, 5-5 in the first set tie-break after the rain had stopped play early on Wednesday. The first set had been incredibly close, and incredibly long. Neither player had lost serve. But upon the restart, Cilic lost his focus for a second, sending a forehand into the net to give Del Potro the opening set.
While the start of the second set was very much like the first, it ended in chaos. Cilic was the first to break serve. Down a break point, Del Potro, apparently distracted by a fan, served a double fault and saw his opponent take a timely lead of 5-4. But three nervous errors later, Cilic was back level at 5-5. Rather than cashing on his second chance, the Argentine went on to lose the next four games – which meant that Cilic had a jump start in the crucial third set as well.
Another break point in the fifth game, with Del Potro trailing 1-3, proved pivotal. The Argentine saved it with a big serve. And even as Del Potro started hitting with more intent, Cilic was heading towards another meltdown. He failed to make routine backhands and lost 19 of the next 22 points, and five games in a row for Del Potro to clinch the set 6-3.
What was expected to be a winner-studded spectacle, was eventually decided by the number of errors off Cilic’s racquet: 74. Even though the Croat ran Del Potro close in the fourth, he never quite looked like surpassing him. The Argentine went ahead at 6-5, and won the next game to love to seal the match. He stuck his arms out and took in the moment in, drenched in the spring sun and crowd adoration.
“I am doing well,” said Del Potro, who will climb to, at least, No 4 in the world on Monday, told the press later. “Of course, I didn't expect to get in semi-finals a couple of weeks before. But now I'm here, and I'm still alive.”
He faces the toughest fight for survival on Friday, when Del Potro takes on Nadal in the semi-final. Not many have tackled the Spaniard on red dirt and lived to tell the tale. When asked about the clash, in less than 24 hours, the big man smiled his small smile and let his legion of supporters do the howling. Even if the results are not, at least the crowd might be on his side.