The legendary baseball player Satchel Paige once asked this question: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
Which leads us to Juan Martin del Potro.
It is amazing to think that this accomplished Argentine is only 28 years old. What a journey he has had. Three wrist operations have forced del Potro out of the game for extended periods – and of course, led him to contemplate the possibility of his career ending far sooner than he’d ever imagined.
At the end of 2015, del Potro was ranked #581 in the world. He returned impressively last year, most powerfully when he played for his homeland. At the Rio Olympics, del Potro opened with an incredibly emotional 7-6, 7-6 victory over Novak Djokovic. In the semis, more drama, del Potro squeaking past Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 7-6. And then, an arduous final, del Potro losing to Andy Murray 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
But later in the year, del Potro would advance Argentina’s cause even further. In the Davis Cup semis, up against Murray in Glasgow, he rallied from two sets to one down to win 6-4 in the fifth. Two months later, Argentina seek its first-ever Davis Cup title, del Potro took down Ivo Karlovic and on the last day of competition, tenaciously wore down Marin Cilic, 6-7, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3, leveling the tie and setting the stage for his countryman, Federico Delbonis, to win the decisive match.
By the end of 2016, del Potro had climbed all the way back to #38 in the world. Wisely, he opted out of the Australian Open. So far this year, his only result of note is a semifinal run at the Delray Beach.
The sound of a forehand coming off del Potro’s racquet is like nothing in tennis. It is a sonic boom, the ball exploding, able to penetrate through the court from just about any spot. The challenge, alas, is that del Potro’s backhand remains a work in progress. As his wrist recovered, del Potro built a mildly effective one-handed slice, a shot struck low that on the good days can set del Potro up for his concussive forehand. On the bad days, though, del Potro is quite vulnerable on that side, creating an imbalance that can lead to him trying to strike bigger than desired on his forehand.
The last time del Potro played Roland Garros was in 2012. That’s right – he has missed four straight French Opens. But back in ’12, del Potro reached the quarters and led Roger Federer two sets to love before losing, 6-3 in the fifth.
At his current rank of #34, del Potro would not be seeded in Paris. Will he generate a few results to earn such a spot? Does it matter?
For what it’s worth, Satchel Paige pitched well into his 40s, including a 1952 season when he went 12-10. Of course, Paige played a sport where you didn’t have to play the entire game. Still, here’s opening that del Potro – younger than Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic – will plenty of more great innings. After all he’s been through, del Potro deserves the chance to age kindly.