WATCH: Unstrung—Juan Martin del Potro

Juan Martin del Potro knows how final matches feel. In 2009, he beat Marat Safin in the Russian’s last tournament, in Paris. Three years later, he did the same to Andy Roddick at the US Open. In each case, Delpo sent his Hall of Fame opponent into retirement as gently as possible, with hugs and tributes and an air of deferential respect. They appreciated the gestures, and were happy that this most empathetic of athletes was there to read them their last professional rites.

“I’m glad I got a chance to play del Potro,” Safin said.

“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who doesn’t like him or doesn’t think he’s a class act,” Roddick said of the Argentine. “I was happy I got the opportunity to play him today.”

The next year at the US Open, James Blake revealed recently, del Potro waited for an hour in the locker room for the American to finish his last match, so he could give him a hug. “A giant man with a giant heart,” Blake said.

Now it’s that gentle giant’s turn to have his last hurrah. Del Potro, 33, announced that he will likely retire this week at the Argentina Open, or next week at the Rio Open. He has been off the tour for three years, and undergone three surgeries on a broken knee, but the pain won’t go away. On Tuesday he lost his first-round match in Buenos Aires, 6-1, 6-3, to countryman and teammate Federico Delbonis, before a full house that serenaded him out of the stadium.


I feel like I’ve given it all...This is a day I never wanted to come, but I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life. Juan Martin del Potro

There were flashes of the famous del Potro forehand, once the most thrilling Howitzer shot in the game. Otherwise, though, he struggled to get any pace on his backhand, and was left flat-footed by Delbonis’ drop shots and forehands into the corners. But Delpo still had his stage presence, and his sense of the moment. He threw a ball at Delbonis in mock anger, and gave him a long hug at the net. He broke down in tears as the crowd bought back the “Olé…Del-po” chant that had followed him around the world. He draped his headband over the net strap and stopped for a long hug with his mother on his way off the court.

“I feel like I’ve given it all,” del Potro said. “This is a day I never wanted to come, but I’m going to remember it for the rest of my life.”

Delpo gave it all that he could, but, sadly, it wasn’t all that he had. When he beat Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open final as a 20-year-old, he looked like he would be a new star for a new decade. From the standpoint of the game’s evolution, Delpo made sense: At 6’6” he was taller than virtually any other major champion, and he hit his ground strokes harder than anyone ever had—120 m.p.h. or more from the forehand side. But each time it looked as if he was ready to take his place at the top of the sport, his body betrayed him. Over 12 years, four wrist surgeries were followed by those three knee surgeries.

Yet del Potro’s career wasn’t just a tale of misfortune and wasted potential, and he wasn’t just a lovable second-fiddle. He made the most of his health. He won a Grand Slam title, medaled twice at the Olympics, recorded 10 wins over No. 1-ranked players and 17 wins over the Big Three, went 439-174, and most memorably, ended Argentina’s nearly century-long wait for a Davis Cup title. In the final, with Argentina facing elimination in Croatia, he came back from two sets down for the first time in his career to beat Marin Cilic. For all of the epic defeats that del Potro suffered over the years—and there were many—he was a winner.


But more than his game, or his achievements, or his sonic forehand, it was Delpo’s low-key charisma that made him special, and that added so much to his era. He understood, like few players have, that tennis is theater as well as sport, and that dramatizing the emotions of a match only enhances it. He reminded me of Jimmy Connors in his ability to get a crowd on his side with his personality alone. Where Connors did it with amped-up energy, Delpo drew us in with his subtle sense of showmanship. A shake of the head, an exhausted walk between points, a semi-comical glare at an opponent or a chair umpire, a shirt pulled over his head, a kiss aimed skyward after a victory: del Potro didn’t do anything on court strictly for himself, the way most tennis players do; he did it with one eye on the audience, and audiences everywhere responded.

One of my favorite tennis experiences was watching Delpo’s five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon semifinals. Over the course of a sunny, festive afternoon, he sat down after long points in theatrical exhaustion; greeted his missed shots with long stares of disbelief; hit a ball at the Hawk-eye replay screen in mock anger; and ran across to Djokovic’s side of the net to have a talk about a line call. The Centre Court crowd ate it up.

“I really enjoyed watching them as well,” del Potro said of the audience. “I think they saw my effort, my big effort. They’re clapping for me, and that helped me a lot for sure. They really enjoy the match. They like tennis.”

That defeat, like so many of del Potro’s wins and losses, ended in an embrace and show of mutual respect with his opponent. He wasn’t the best player of his era, but few others added as much to its emotional texture and atmosphere. He helped normalize tears and hugs on court, and deepened the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood among the players. The tour didn’t feel quite as cold or cutthroat when del Potro was part of it. If you had to have someone beat you in your final match, you wanted it to be him.

The Tower of Tandil did the same for us, too. This has been a polarized era for men’s tennis fans, as each of the Big Three built a fanatical fanbase that was theirs alone. But if there was someone we could all get behind, and feel for, and root for, it was del Potro. We may never agree on anything the way we agreed on him.