A singular white headband was gently draped over a net at a tennis court in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and so likely signaled the end of Juan Martin del Potro’s career.
Tuesday’s loss against Federico Delbonis was probably the Argentine’s last after a career bereft with injuries and numerous surgeries. Before his final service game, del Potro covered his face in a towel and wept as his countrymen and women sang his name.
Few tennis players are as loved as del Potro - one of the most tender and sportsmanlike figures in the modern game, whose ferocious forehand catapulted him into the world’s elite.
Few others - Fernando Gonzalez and Roger Federer - could match a forehand like his, but del Potro’s forehand powered even past Federer at the 2009 US Open Final. In a generation saturated with the other-worldliness of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, del Potro claimed an impressive 22 tour titles, two Olympic medals and a career-high of number three. Had it not been for his injuries, he could have been number one.
How many other tennis players can hit a 107 mph forehand on the run?
Legacies are an interesting subject. So often a player is defined by what they won, or how they lost. The Big Three’s legacies will always be defined by whoever has the most Major titles.
But a man like del Potro will be remembered for something much more lasting: his sportsmanship and kind heart. I recall one match in particular against Nicolas Almagro at the 2017 French Open.
Almagro, struggling with a knee injury, was forced to withdraw mid-match. Del Potro did something I never saw another player do: sit next to his opponent, put his arm on his back and console him. Then, as Almagro prepared to walk off the court, del Potro packed the Spaniard’s bag for him. You can watch it here.
Me hicieron muy Feliz!!!— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) February 9, 2022
Eternamente agradecido. ♥️ pic.twitter.com/fZwwpk6oYd
It was one televised moment in a career filled with grace and respect for everyone he encountered. Former world No. 4 James Blake shared that, after his last match, del Potro waited an hour in the locker room so he could give him a hug.
That’s the kind of man del Potro is.
His ferocity and forehand will be missed on the tour, but he leaves behind a legacy as one of the sport’s truest gentlemen.
Fitzie’s track of the day: Too Late now by Wet Leg
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Pain, redemption marked del Potro’s tennis journey