Del Potro's Perfect Moment
by Jorge Viale|
Juan Martin del Potro, 'The Tower of Tandil' at 6'6", clinched the US Open title in September to become the tallest Grand Slam champion in tennis history. After a rapturous home-coming it forced the Argentine to re-assess his career goals.
The parade begins at the intersection of Road 226 and Newton Avenue, one of Tandil's main streets. Juan Martin del Potro receives a brief but precious private welcome from his family, then climbs into a bright red fire truck to start a memorable joyride.
He waves from the top as the truck trundles past the crowds, staring in awe at the reception his US Open victory has brought. Del Potro has just returned from defeating Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer within 36 hours to capture his first Grand Slam championship crown, and his hometown could not be prouder.
"I was greeting people like a zombie."
Suddenly, the emotions flood in and time seems to stop.
Del Potro's expression changes dramatically. He sits still and dissolves from dumbfoundness to helpless tears. He covers his face with both hands. The significance of his achievement has finally sunk in – the champion is again flesh and bone. He tries to stand up, stumbles a little and is aided by a firefighter. His Tandil neighbours stop cheering and screaming his name for a second, then start a huge round of applause for their 'Delpo.'
"I was greeting people like a zombie until that moment. I could only hear 'Delpo, Delpo' and that's it. Cars, motorcycles, it was crazy," says del Potro, now sitting relaxed on a comfortable leather couch in one of the countless rooms of the town's council building. "And then, it was as if reality dawned on me, and I couldn't help crying.
"My friends told me almost a third of the population of Tandil was there, I will never forget that moment in my life." Around 40,000 of the town's estimated population of 130,000 had gathered on the streets to welcome their hero.
The then 20 year old has just finished giving a heartfelt speech from the balcony, feeling "like a president" as he addressed the crowd and received the keys of Tandil from the governor.
The next stop is Independiente, the club in which the newly-crowned US Open champion started to play tennis.
A woman called Viviana stands with some eggs attached to a racket. "Don't you understand the joke? It means he's a tennis player with balls!" she says, laughing loudly.
There is also an official pet, a dog nicknamed 'Chulo' wearing the shirt of Argentina's national soccer team. Kids are running everywhere, some improvising their own tennis match on the street, no nets needed. Others climb trees to get a better view of 'Delpo' when he passes by
"My father came to pick me up at school before the class ended," explains 11-year-old Alejandro. "We didn't want to miss this chance of having his autograph. Half of the class was empty when I left."
The fans have a strong sense of connection with del Potro, and they even compete with each other.
"I have known his sister since she was a baby."
"Everybody asks me if there's a secret in Tandil, but I guarantee there isn't."
"I used to buy steak at his grandfather's butcher shop."
"I told Juan Martin not to play soccer, but tennis…"
The list will not end there. Everybody thinks they know del Potro better than the others.
Club legend says del Potro used to play tennis only when he wasn't playing soccer. But at the age of 12, he had to make a choice and the cold-blooded striker with powerful long-distance shot died there. "Now I'm the worst soccer player you'll ever see. I lost all my abilities for that," del Potro admits.
Second on the popularity list on this cloudy, unforgettable afternoon in Tandil is Marcelo Gomez (pictured right, below), the creator of 'Frankenstein.' Not only has he coached del Potro since childhood and persuaded him to choose tennis and discard soccer, the tall, dark-haired, easy-going Gomez has also worked with pros Mariano Zabaleta, Juan Monaco, Maximo Gonzalez and Diego Junqueira.
What is it about this city, located south-west of Buenos Aires and previously known only for its mountains and cold meats?
"Everybody asks me if there's a secret in Tandil, but I guarantee there isn't," says Gomez, head coach at Independiente. "You have to work hard every day, that's our message. The kids start the process hitting against the wall, an old method that will never be surpassed. We encourage kids to compete bravely. We also tell them to behave properly: if you arrive late, if you smash your racquet, you leave the practice. You can see it in del Potro, Monaco; they never throw their rackets in anger.
"After Juan Martin's win, we got hundreds of e-mails asking for our services. People from Brazil, Uruguay, Chile… Ecuador," explains Gomez. "There are almost a hundred kids on a waiting list. We had to hire new instructors and we plan to build a few more courts."
Gomez coached del Potro until 2007, when the rising star started to work with Franco Davin, who incidentally had learnt to play tennis in Independiente.
Davin has now guided two players to Grand Slam championships. He was Gaston Gaudio's coach when he won the 2004 Roland Garros title and is now setting new goals for del Potro after the historic triumph in Flushing Meadows.
"If I don't learn how to finish the points at the net, I will not beat the top guys often."
The first one is to complete a process in which del Potro is redefining his style of play.
"I want to gain expertise at net play and develop my attacking game. The serve, volley, definition in general, that has to be massively improved by the end of next year, and I think we are in the right direction," says del Potro. "I've got to try to serve and volley sometimes, but if I don't polish up my volley, if I don't learn how to finish the points at the net, I will not beat the top guys often."
Del Potro is now going for his serve more than he used to and had served 510 aces before the start of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
The second stage refers to finding the steadiness that is essential for reaching No. 1. "Juan Martin has the game and will try to be the No. 1 in the near future. He has beaten all the top guys except Novak Djokovic and is still young," says Davin. "However, we know it's an extremely difficult task. You can take a look at Nadal's case: a few years ago, he was winning Grand Slams and still had Federer ahead of him."
Del Potro thinks he still needs to gain experience to challenge the likes of Roger and Rafa. "To be like them, I would have to win the US Open at least ten times a year," he jokes. "They don't have four or five good weeks per season; they are reaching the latter stages of every tournament they enter. And they don't lose in the first round of the tournament after a Grand Slam win, as happened to me [at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships] in Tokyo."
Since the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in March, to the US Open triumph, the Argentine had only lost to two players outside the Top 10, Ivan Ljubicic at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon. He explains his Asian letdown (opening round losses in Tokyo and the Shanghai ATP Masters 1000) was caused by a post-US Open slight burnout, in addition to a minor tooth surgery that annoyed him.
"I wasn't ready for what came after the US Open," reflects del Potro. "I could barely see my family, I gave countless interviews, I was being haunted by paparazzi as if I were a TV star. It's an experience I have to get through."
Davin likes del Potro to focus on working and improving, but has to warn his charge not to be so humble that it quenches his desire for success. "He has to believe in himself more, though he's improved a lot in that this year. He beat Federer, Nadal and [Andy] Murray for the first time in his career, and that’s not a minor thing."
"Time will tell but he's definitely a No. 1 prospect."
As expected, encouraging words come from del Potro's compatriots. "What he achieved is an example for the younger kids out there," says David Nalbandian. "Still, we don’t have to hurry and put pressure on him. He has to take his time to settle down at the highest level and then challenge the top guys."
Juan Monaco, a long-time friend and tennis advisor, thinks del Potro has the advantage over Murray and Djokovic. "He's got a better, more powerful game, and winning attitude. Time will tell but he's definitely a No. 1 prospect."
Tennis legend Guillermo Vilas adds: "Winning a tough Grand Slam like the US Open at only 20 years of age against Federer and Nadal proves you are one-of-a-kind. He's got more firepower than Murray, though you have to play a perfect match to beat Andy."
Like a mathematician who brings in an unexpected variable, Juan Martin has a curious theory that would support a long-term arrival to the throne, as he half-jokingly says: "I'm still young. If I keep on playing at this level, then Roger and then Rafa will retire, I will be a better player and then I can be the No. 1."
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