What would you find if you were to rummage through Juan Martin del Potro’s tennis bag this week? The usual collection of spare grips, vibration absorbers and shiny new Wilson rackets. But also one bashed-about tricolour model – decorated in red, black and white – that he has been carrying around for several seasons.
Del Potro has a strong personal attachment to the three surviving rackets from his 2009 US Open campaign. As superstitious as he is meticulous, he has been hoarding them as lucky charms, mementoes of the fortnight where he beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in successive matches to lift his first grand slam trophy.
“I have good memories from those rackets,” Del Potro told The Daily Telegraph. “I travel with them but I am using different ones from day to day. I have confidence with that racket, so I bring them just in case. If I play in a final — maybe a grand slam final — I will use it again.”
As one of only four men to have landed a major title since 2005, Del Potro finds himself in a unique position, D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers. The others — Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic — are all automatic entries in the Hall of Fame, whereas Del Potro has not yet made it back to a grand slam semi-final, let alone won another event.
Will he remain a one-hit wonder? It seems unlikely when you look at the heavy ordnance he delivers, particularly with his open-chested, long-levered forehand. He uses lead tape to add weight to the head of the racket, which he rips through the ball with a violent flick of the wrist.
That shot is a phenomenally powerful weapon, but it also places serious strain on his body, which may help to explain why Del Potro dropped off the ATP tour for most of the 2010 season. He developed tendinitis in that right wrist, a chronic injury that eventually required surgery. His ranking plummeted from No 4 in the world all the way down to No 485, and it has taken him more than a year to work his way back into the top 10.
What did he do to keep himself sane, as he sat at home in Argentina, counting off those long weeks and months of rehab? “I watched soccer, all the matches,” he said. “Boca Juniors is my favourite team. I really like sport, and I follow friends who play soccer all over the world. [The closest being Martin Palermo, the former Argentina striker.] I enjoy meeting with them, and talking about the difference in our sports.”
At the same time, Del Potro was in regular contact with Federer, Nadal and other leading players. “They sent me emails and texts, when I had my wrist problem,” he said. “I was really proud for that because the best players in the world were thinking about me and they were worried about me getting better. That means you are doing a good job and you have friends among the players also.”
These attempts to lift Del Potro’s spirits reveal how much camaraderie exists between the supposed rivals at the top of the men’s game. And they also give an indication about his popularity in the locker room.
Although you could draw parallels between Del Potro’s injury and the glandular fever that has sidelined Robin Soderling for the past year, it is hard to see too many postcards dropping on the doormat of the abrasive Soderling, a man who has succeeded in winding up everyone from Nadal to Andy Murray over the years.
Admittedly, Del Potro also had a run-in with Murray at the BNL Internazionali in Rome, where he alluded to many years of junior confrontations by remarking, “You and your mother are always the same”.
But his little outburst was quite out of character, and the two players have since made up, with Murray contributing to the flood of “Get well soon” messages in Del Potro’s inbox.
It must be hard to fall out with Del Potro for long, because he has a sleepy-eyed good humour that seems at odds with his intimidating physical presence.
To look at him — a 6ft 6in pillar of a man, with biceps like steel hawsers — you might imagine that he was one of the villains from WWE’s WrestleMania. But in fact he is a gentle creature, with no particular desire to seek notoriety or renown. He would love to hide away in the crowd, if only it were possible for such a human monolith to do so.
His self-effacing manner extends to his soft-speaking voice, as slow and deep as a tape recorder with depleted batteries. And when he notched that landmark victory at Flushing Meadows, his response was hardly that of a natural showman: rather than shouting or screaming, he lay down on the ground and wept, until you couldn’t tell whether it was sweat or tears dripping off his chin.
When Del Potro watches other sports, he finds himself gravitating towards kindred spirits, performers who get the job done quietly and professionally. To take one example, he has a big wrap — as the Australians like to say – on Jonny Wilkinson, the former England fly- half.
“I like his game,” Del Potro explained. “I know many Argentinian players but Wilkinson is one of the best in the world. I have his shoes. It’s a big memory for me. He signed them also.”
It so happens that Del Potro’s father was a semi-professional rugby player in Argentina, while Wilkinson is a huge tennis fan who admits that it was his second-favourite sport while he was growing up. The two men have spent some time together and developed a strong rapport.
So does Del Potro share Wilkinson’s “never-satisfied” approach to sport, his obsessional search for improvement? “The best players do that, in all the sports,” he says. “Federer, Nadal, me – we want to be perfect all the time and we work for that. When you win, when you lose, you have to take the good things and the worse things, things you can improve. Talk with your coach and try to be perfect in the future.”
It must have been hugely stressful to combine such intense drive with the slow route back to fitness, especially when Del Potro felt he couldn’t trust his own body. “For six or seven months, it was tough to not be scared any more about my wrist,” he says. “But now I am feeling more relaxed.”
With any luck, the worst is now behind him. At the French Open last week, Del Potro turned the clock back to 2009 with a powerhouse performance in his quarter-final against Federer. He was strafing the ball low over the net, bullying the world’s most agile and inventive player with his sheer weight of shot.
But then the condition of his bandaged left knee seemed to deteriorate, inhibiting his movement around the court. The match changed direction rather more decisively than Del Potro himself, and he wound up losing in five sets.
Still, he was typically philosophical afterwards, saying “I’m feeling it [the knee] a bit right now, but I really want to start playing at Queen’s. I have a game to be dangerous for all the players, because I like to serve and volley.”
If he can sort out his latest niggle then it may not be long before he is unzipping that bag and pulling out one of those three- year- old rackets — museum pieces, by the innovation-hungry standards of the locker room — for another tilt at a major final.