Leaving a legacy. In sports media this notion is veiled in almost every discussion of a great athlete. For a tennis player winning a Grand Slam, two Olympic medals, 18 career titles and achieving a world ranking of 4 in the world is a careers worth of accolades. Multiple wrist surgeries, 13 missed Grand Slams and more than two and a half years away from tennis tells speaks to completely different legacy however.
In sport, nothing is ever black and and white. When it comes to the case of Juan Martin Del Potro, who is both the aforementioned highly decorated and highly injury prone player, he has had two completely different careers. Del Potro burst onto the scene at the 2009 The US Open, the same Grand Slam he is currently in the quarterfinals of, as a 20-year-old who looked like a 35-year-old. At 6′ 6″ he always caught the eye but when he unleashed his devastating forehand, he became a showstopper. After beating the five-time defending champion and world number 1 Roger Federer at the 2009 US Open he was the toast of the tennis world. Less than 6 months later however, he had his first of numerous wrist surgeries which would see him bounce on and off the ATP tour and limit him to a single semi-final appearance at a Grand Slam over the next six and a half years.
In the blink of an eye, a career can turn. Every good sports fan knows however, that when there is fall there is always the hope of a glorious comeback, something this years US Open crowd has been eager to embrace. Del Potro reemerged at Wimbledon this year with a second round win over the 3rd ranked Stan Wawrinka, but really announced his return with wins over Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal on his way to the silver medal at the Rio Olympics. In Rio he had his Argentinian contingent backing him, but his emotional displays after the Djokovic match, and every win thereafter, pulled at heartstrings of every tennis fan. You could see how much it meant to him to be back and playing at such a high level. To see such a burly, grizzly and imposing man well up with tears, part out of love of country, part out of joy, part out of relief at knowing he can still compete like that US Open champion, was genuinely refreshing.
The US Open understood the appeal of this former champion as well and awarded him with a wild card and he hasn’t looked back. In an interview last week at the US Open when asked if he ever thought about retiring he said “Well, I was really close to quit tennis because after the first surgery, the second one, and in the end the third one, it was really, really sad moments for me. …My family and friends help me a lot to never give up. And I think I’m doing well now. The worst part of my life is totally in the past, and I’m living a good present and looking forward for a good future.” At 142 in the world the what if’s of his career (Would there have been a big 5?) are hard to ignore, but he’s ready to look ahead. For him it’s not about legacy, it’s not about making up for lost time, it’s about enjoying, living, and expressing each moment as it should be. Try not to fall in love with that.