Juan Martin Del Potro in a feature interview from La Nacion Revista.
He still believes that his destiny was to be a soccer player, not a tennis player. Although he travels the world, he always comes back to Tandil, to his parents’ home, where his childhood bedroom is exactly the same. At 24, the Argentinian tennis #1 is still just a big boy.
Juan Martin Del Potro doesn’t lean over to shake your hand, he bends in half. He’s 24 now, but it’s been that way for some time. As a kid, when he played football in Tandil, parents of kids from the other team would demand his birth certificate, as of that of another teammate, because they hit the ball so hard, scored goals, and showed up so many other players.
The Tennis Club Argentina is behind the Planetarium, just past that giant scoop of metallic ice cream. The winter sun hits the white chairs in the ‘incubator’ of a main hall to blinding effect. Coming off a court in the far distance, a man appears surrounded by a bunch of boys. They head toward the ‘incubator.’
“Hello. Can you wait while I take a shower?” Juan Martin Del Potro asks from somewhere near the top of his 6’6″ height.
The “boys” are adults and children, [it turns out.] Some stood no taller than his elbow. None higher than his shoulder.
Certainly, Juan was good at football. Playing for Independiente de Tandil, at 9, at 11, sometimes at 8 or 5, but always in front, on the attack. [Translator note: I don't understand enough about football to know what that means, so it's a literal translation.] He played a two-man offense with a much smaller, but talented and fast teammate. Like Guillermo-Palermo at their best, he remembered. Once, arriving at the club early to practice and needing to do something to kill time, he picked up a racquet. Tennis was, at that time, just a way to pass the time when he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, which was play football.
When he was 12, there was a South American tennis tournament and a football national to be played at the same time.
“But in Córdoba. The tennis one was in Brazil, and I’d never flown in an airplane. I went on the plane, and went for tennis,” he said.
* What do you remember about that first trip?
“I got the last seat. There were 3 or 4 of us traveling together. It was my first plane ride. I really didn’t know what to expect. For me, to be flying and to be able to see everything from above was the most impressive thing. The noise of the engines, to look out onto the wing, that was spectacular.”
He won the tournament. And he was awarded the prize for best player in South America. His coaches went crazy and spoke to his parents, because they all believed he had a better chance going with football than shooting for a tennis career. It was coming time to decide because Juan was going into high school playing both.
Then it became clear.
At 16, he shot up in size: his muscles and his arms grew at such a rate it made him awkward. He says that in football it was a disaster; in tennis [less so.] He wondered what was happening. His adolescent body was betraying him.
In 2008, Del Potro was 19 and he won 4 tournaments in a row. He played for Argentina in the Davis Cup final [against Spain] – (he had won the 5th tie in the semifinal against Russia, after Nalbandian, surprisingly, lost the 4th.)
He was a kid reaching for the stars. Also, a teenager with a fresh mouth: ”We’re going to take Nadal’s underpants out of his ass,” which he later apologized for. The final came like good movie-popcorn: covered in caramel, but also with unpopped kernels, the kind that break your teeth: Nalbandian – Del Potro. Eyes were cut at Juan Martin because he chose to play hurt in Shanghai, a week before the final against Spain.
And we lost. In Mar del Plata. Del Potro lost a tie, and then insisted that he couldn’t play another because of injury.
A year later, he won the final of the US Open by defeating Roger Federer and found himself in the top 4 of the world rankings.
* The injury to the wrist; that says it all. Did it take away your drive to play tennis?
“The truth is, yes. I was injured, sad, went through several months without a diagnosis, going from doctor to doctor. In the end, a lot of things were said that weren’t true. (Ed.: That he had tested positive for doping.) Everything they said was too much. After 3 months, I went – I don’t know.
“I had just won the US Open, just gotten to #4 in the world, everything was in place to push to be #1 and suddenly, a situation I couldn’t have imagined. But, OK, I hit a big bump in the road, and it has not only helped my tennis, but my life. I’ve realized who is important to me and who isn’t. My heart friends, my family, my team – the ones who care about Juan as a person. In what we do, it’s hard to have your feet on the ground and realize that at the same time. It’s like you’re on automatic pilot and everything goes by really fast. Franco [Davin, his coach], Martiniano [Orazi, his physio], and my doctor went almost a year without working. But they stayed with me…I value that hugely. Now, we’re more united on a human level than a professional one.
He was supported by family, friends, trainers, and the doctor who finally operated on him. He didn’t [go into therapy]. He was sure that guidance came from above and that he would play tennis again.
“There were days I woke up and thought: ‘What if I never pick up a racquet again?’ In those moments I appreciated my Mamá, who insisted that I finish high school, so that I still had other options.
“Other options” would have been architecture. ”Mamá” is Patricia, literature professor, and “Papá” is Daniel, a veterinarian. But not the [precious city-variety]: Juan was born in Tandil, and the animals don’t get around much on sidewalks. Following his dad in his work, which he did, meant going into the countryside.
* When you say you’re guided from above, do you mean your sister?” (Ed. She died in an accident.)
“Yes, her, and God. My sister is very important to me. I give her a gift in every match, the signal. My family and me, we don’t like to talk about this, but it’s very special. I know that she looks after me and guides me, and this gives me strength.”
Aside from his astonishing height, there are other things that are difficult to comprehend. How can he be 24-years-old and a Springsteen fanatic? Franco Davin, his coach, is standing 6 feet away, against a fence. He’s talking to another man the way that men talk imperfections in a car. One always has a hand on the roof, the other is watching the whole thing with complete concentration.
Davin made him a Springsteen fan, showing him a DVD of a live concert one night during a tournament. Dinner, DVD: match won. Next day, same: match won. And again. Juan bought the DVD, and then another. And then he went to Wembley to see him live.
“I stood in line and everything. Fantastic. I groove on his music.”
Some of his expressions seem outdated – “I groove on his music” — and others seem out of his reach. He often says he’d like to do the things that a 24-year-old does. The fact that he has no girlfriend hangs in the air. He’s not in a hurry to talk about it. As when asked if libido gets in the way of the most important thing: friends.
He brings friends up every three questions. For example, Ramiro…is waiting for the interview to be over so they can drink mate together. Like Juan he’s waiting to do things that aren’t allowed because he’s a professional athlete.
“I eat a lot of chocolate. And cake, and ice cream. Not so much dark chocolate, but white, and ‘chocolate en rama,’” [an Argentinian specialty] he says, and seems to be eating it in his imagination. ”My favorite dessert is chocolate mousse. My mother’s is delicious. My grandmother’s, too. I can eat it now, but not very often.”
* How do you explain to others what it means to be Argentinian? How can you explain Del Potro – Davis Cup?
I understand the people here. I know it’s hard to make everyone happy with what I decide. I’ve been playing Davis Cup since I was 17, and I love it. But, hey, this year was a really complicated decision. I felt that this was an opportunity to try other things, look towards other goals, knowing that some would not agree with my decision, while others would. There are a lot of people who would like to see someone try to be the #1, which Argentina has never had, and others who would like to see us win Davis Cup. It was a difficult choice to make, but it was very considered and I’m confident in it. It might turn out well, it might not. As to the public, I can only be grateful. In the streets, in the club, in Tandil, they’re all fantastic to me.
* But in the end, isn’t Del Potro and the Davis Cup “a thing?”
“Anyone can say anything when they aren’t talking to you face-to-face, just via social media. I’m not against it, but here everyone wants an opinion about everything. That’s how we are. I love being Argentinian, I love our way of life, we are very passionate. When I go to a tournament abroad, I don’t want to say that others exactly envy us, but they do say they wish they had our ‘style.’ Recently, at Wimbledon, I was treated like a local, which seemed crazy, against the world #1. (Ed. speaking of the semifinal, which he lost against Djokovic.) They give me a hard time, they wonder if it bothers me, this ‘Del Po, Del Pooo’ on the courts. I love it. I don’t find it ill-intended, on the contrary, I feel there are increasingly more fans who back me, who cheer me on in really nice ways. But I know that I will come back (to play Davis Cup.)”
The sports pages say that he is 7th in the ATP rankings. In the chat forums, there is no doubt he is one of the ten best in the world. At the top, Djokovic, Murray, Ferrer, Nadal, Federer, Berdych; on the lower part, Tsonga, Gasquet, Wawrinka. All Europeans. Del Potro is Argentine and he lives here, at the end of the world.
“They travel from one tournament to another in an hour, and I have to fly 14 or 20 hours.”
* So why don’t you live abroad?
“Thing is, I like living here. I get a lot of energy from being with friends and family. And, these are choices. That said, when I go to the US, I spend a little more time and avoid other trips. But still, they [Europeans] have a big advantage in terms of rest and preparation.”
* You were a great fan of Dragon Ball Z…
“Absolutely! It was my favorite cartoon. Along with El Charo, it was the one I watched the most. We’d go straight from school to watch Dragon Ball. I even kept an album of the characters.”
* If you were Goku, who is Freezer or Cell?
“There was one called Kiri? (Ed. Kirilm)…what was it?” He asks Ramiro, who doesn’t know. ”But he was Goku’s best friend. I don’t remember the enemy. But tennis players, in terms of actual enemies, we don’t have them.”
* Well, there are irritations. I can think of one…
“The one you’re thinking of isn’t. I don’t know who it is, but he isn’t …” – smiles – “… but if you’re saying that Goku is going to fight against his arch enemy and have a great battle, would it be Nadal?” (Silent pause.) ”Or Djokovic? Or Murray?”
He gave Djokovic a Boca jersey, and one to Federer, and it seems to him that Tsonga is also “Boca,” though only because Tsonga said, “Boca is very well known.” When they have tough matches, or when they are losing, or both, Del Potro is thinking of Boca. Of playing for Boca. And he thinks it helps them. And he dreams of Boca.
“I dream much more about football than of tennis. I dream about the players, of making goals, of La Bombonera. [Boca Juniors' stadium.] Whatever. I can spend all night talking about anything. The other night we did, talking about Disney. All night talking about it, with friends coming and going. The next day I dreamt that I was Pluto, totally in costume. Totally, the whole thing.” (Laughs.)
He doesn’t think about retiring. If one day he won’t play tennis anymore, and gets over his football ambitions, he wants to play the game of life, not Del Potro vs The Field, armed as a tennis warrior – he’ll go back to live in Tandil.
But that will be a very long time from now.
For now, when he’s in Buenos Aires, he lives alone in his apartment. When he goes to Tandil, though, it’s different.
“My mother is there, and she’ll say, ‘Juan, come eat!’ and I no longer have my moments alone. I go back to feeling like a kid, when I lived with them.”
* Do you sleep in your old room?
* Is it still the same?
“Completely. My little Boca bear that I’ve had since I was 4 years old is right next to my bed.”