From a 12 February interview with Juan Martín Del Potro on the Argentine radio show El Grupo de la Muerte from Vorterix Radio. You can listen to the original here.
Question: Hello, Juan. It’s been a long time—how are you? How’s everything?
Juan Martín Del Potro: Very well. Resting before the afternoon practice, and the hand treatments later; I’ll finish with everything tonight.
Q: Well, for many of us, myself included, to hear you saying “the afternoon practice” is already big news—the fact that you are working physically already.
JMDP: Yes, a couple of days ago I started hitting forehands, serving, volleying. Obviously, backhand will be the last thing I’ll start to practice because I’m still doing mobility exercises for my wrist. If everything goes well, next Monday I’ll start going to the gym and trying to strengthen it; and possibly by the end of next week, I’ll start hitting with my left hand to continue to advance my rehabilitation.
Q: What did Dr. Berger explain to you about this surgery compared with the last one you had?
JMDP: It’s a lot easier and a lot simpler than the other injury. In my backhand movement, before the impact with the ball, I had some injured tissue, the product of bones that were colliding and rubbing that tissue and damaging it. It was very hard to fix it with other treatments, and when he saw me he recommended the surgery, one that was not as serious as the one I had before—and I didn’t want to waste any more time. The time for this rehab is much less than the time for my previous rehab, and I’m looking forward—I’m very anxious to play again, whether it’s in the upcoming tournaments in the US, Indian Wells and Miami, or it’s in the clay tournaments in Europe. It’ll be great if [my comeback] could be in that span of time.
Q: There’s a big difference between this surgery and the other injuries and procedures you had—you’re looking at much closer targets, you’re talking about Indian Wells and Miami, that would be March; and the other tournaments you were mentioning would be in April. If we understand correctly, your comeback could be really soon.
JMDP: Yes, well, obviously with the hand like this it’s difficult to set exact dates because I’m going day by day; but compared with the other process, I’m going much faster. After a week without the cast, I have almost 100% mobility, I’m starting to do strengthening exercises. Last time it took me months to start doing all that, so… I don’t know today exactly what tournament I’ll be coming back. I think that when the hand allows me to—when I don’t feel any discomfort or fear or any serious pain—I’ll go out and train during competition, during tournaments, because that helps me so much more than just staying in one place with my coach. I feel like I advanced so much during my run in Australia, during those matches I got to play in Sydney. That helped me much more than if I’d kept training in Buenos Aires. That’s what I need: competition-level rhythm against big players. Those things that I can only get when I’m on the tour.
Q: In the little time you got in the tour this year, what was it like to come back? Who greeted you? How did your occasional rivals react when they saw you again on the tour?
JMDP: The truth is, everyone was really cool. Sydney was my first encounter with my colleagues. Leo Mayer was there, Charly Berlocq too; we were training together in Buenos Aires and we get along well. Fognini, the Spanish players, players from other countries. People from the ATP, the Australian fans—I had won that tournament the year before, so they were happy to see me. Then, when I arrived in Melbourne, I met Rafa, Roger, Djokovic, their coaches… Going back to the world of tennis that I missed so much for so long was really nice; it lasted so little, yet I enjoyed it so much and it was very useful for me because it gave me energy to face the complicated period that I’m going through now. Those days left me with a very positive feeling. All the people that set their alarms to wake up early to see me, all the nice stuff that people were doing, I felt it, and they gave me strength to continue and to not give up.
Q: Did you feel in the match against Fognini that maybe you could let loose your arm and unleash your backhand?
JMDP: It was hard. It was hard because when you are playing every day, recovery time is very short, so treatments don’t really help with that. The hand wasn’t responding like I wanted, and I think even Kukushkin realised that in the next match, because he started to hit everything to the backhand, and the effort that I had to do to avoid it was really big. Because of that, I said to myself, “I don’t wanna lose any more time, I’m off to see Berger and try to solve this once and for all, and go out and play in even conditions.” After that, it’ll probably be a long process of wins and losses, but the main thing for me is to be healthy and be in equal conditions [with my opponents]. That would be a great relief, especially mentally.
Q: There’s a little time now until the Davis Cup tie against Brazil. Can you put in your own words your position on the Davis Cup and Argentine tennis?
JMDP: That was the thing that I was trying to say through the open letters that I wrote back in the day, when I started to speak out and try to communicate with some leaders. Some time after that, there were some changes: Diego Gutierrez showed up, “Palito” Fidalgo, Cervone… We started to have a good dialogue, a respectful one, and together we started talking about what would be the road Argentine tennis should take to grow, beyond me playing or not in Davis Cup. Back then, I talked about Argentine tennis not having a top performance centre, about a lot of junior players not being able to afford to travel overseas, or about how hard it is to start playing tennis because of how costly it is, and lots of things that structurally didn’t work. With being injured, I had a lot of time to think about all that stuff, about the path we should follow, and obviously about the day that I could return to Davis Cup, because I really love to play it. All of this was done with the purpose of seeking that goal. Luckily, the new leaders [of the Argentine Tennis Association] are heading in the same direction—we all want the same things.
It was not easy—everyone knows it. I suffered a lot during this time, even more without playing. When you’re playing and winning, you can handle it better; but this way, I lived it more in the flesh, and I learned a lot. My best source of strength was my belief in my convictions, my trust in myself that I was doing the right thing. I tried not to listen and act in silence, like I did before. I tried not to listen to the lies—and with these new leaders, I felt like I was being listened to and I felt less alone, that I was not the only one thinking that things needed to change in general in Argentine tennis. Today, things are going the right way and we have a positive message to give. Particularly for me, the good news I have to give is that I will be playing Davis Cup again, as soon as possible. It’s a beautiful thing that I wanted to share with a lot of people who were waiting for this—a lot of people who were waiting with me, suffering with me, listening to many painful things. But that’s looking back, and the best thing we can do is to look forward now that Argentina has a lot of power, a lot of potential. There are a lot of players raising their level and that’s really important. We shouldn’t think so much about the Davis Cup—we should think about more global things, like the great federations of the world do. We should start to change things so we can compete with those worldwide powers.
Q: Juan, in conversations I had with people who know about this subject, they were saying that obviously everyone knows the importance of Juan Martin playing Davis Cup, but there are a lot of other things about your presence that are influential: being close to the team, close to the young players, and so on. What I want to know is if there’s any chance of us seeing you around in the tie against Brazil or not.
JMDP: Yes, well, [being around] helps a lot. One of the things that I was saying before is that whenever I felt like there are other people who are willing to change Argentine tennis with me, I was going to be there in any form, if they needed me. As of today, with my hand the way it is, I spend most of the day rehabilitating and working to come back to the courts; but I also know that I can help by being around in Tecnópolis [Argentina’s training center]—hitting forehands, serving to my teammates, spending time in the locker room, sharing experiences, talking. The captain knows it; I gave him this message. My teammates also know this, and they are aware of the situation today. No doubt, I will be there against Brazil cheering and supporting the team—and I’ll be there for anything they need. That’s all I can do these days, and hopefully if we win this round, I will be able to play in the next tie and be on court and not on the side—because that’s my thing, and I want to enjoy it, like I did when I played Davis Cup before, like I did at the Olympic Games, and like I always do on the tour.
Q: One of the things we heard your colleagues say about you this last time when you had to pull out of the tour again—I think it was Dimitrov and Nadal who said this—is that maybe you should try to change the way you hit your backhand. How long can it take for a player to change his style of play when he’s built a whole career playing a certain way? Is it possible to change the way you do something, when you’ve done it your entire life in a determined way?
JMDP: Yes, I listened to those things. Dimitrov even told me this in person, that I should start to hit a one-handed backhand. I think if I start practising one-handed backhands today, I wouldn’t even be able to hit it like Franco [Davin] hits it today (laughs). But, it’s too hard. It would be way too complicated. I’m not even considering it. I want to recover my hand and be able to hit [my backhand] hard like I’ve done throughout my career. I think they meant something like, “If this is a career-threatening thing, then you should try to hit it with one hand.” If that was the case, I’ll take it as advice; but right now, I’m willing to make the effort to recover my backhand. I want to have not only a powerful forehand but also a powerful backhand, like I always did.
Q: Since 2010, when the problems on your wrists started, were there moments of discouragement? How did you feel when these issues started to pull you away for so long?
JMDP: Injuries are the worst thing that can happen in the life of an athlete. In the last years, I’ve felt like my life had lots of ups and downs—at some point, I could go back to my best ranking, and then again things changed because of an injury and all the bad things came back. And that’s how these last years have been for me. It hasn’t been easy. It’s not easy to live with an injury that pulls you away from the courts for so long. It’s the hardest match I’ve ever played. It tires you physically, it wears you out mentally, it fills you with fear, doubts, and uncertainty. You wake up every day thinking, “Will this be the end of my career?”
But today I feel very strong—I won’t give up because of this. I know this is a big rock in my road, but I’m really trying. I have great desire to play again, and this Davis Cup news fills me with energy, with good vibes; those are the things I need to play tennis again. After that, I will try to put together an intelligent schedule to take care of my hand, and to enjoy playing, because all this time I was out I had a really bad time—I cried a lot. It’s truly ugly to watch on TV, to see that the big tournaments are opening up, and the big names winning Grand Slams are starting to change, and me feeling like I could be there and not being able to compete… It’s really hard. But, well, I had to go through this and I have to be strong now. After this, just by playing again, I will be happy and I’m going to enjoy it a lot.
Q: When Marin Čilić, who is your friend, won the US Open, it was like he was saying, “Juan, come back—we’re waiting for you.”
JMDP: Yeah, I was in touch with him, and I was very happy for him. We’ve known each other since we were 12, and there he was living the same thing that I lived a few years ago. Winning such a tournament is not easy and he really deserved it. Nishikori, who reached the final, is also one of the kids that I grew up with. I think it’s really good for tennis to see those new names winning Grand Slams, so people won’t get bored seeing the same guys winning all the time (laughs). I did think, “That could be me, competing in the best tournaments against the best players, and instead I have to deal with this wrist.” But, like I said, this is one more thing in my career and I’m making a great effort to get over it; hopefully, the things to come will be great.
Q: Did you feel during this time that your career might be over—that maybe you wouldn’t be able to play anymore?
JMDP: I felt that way five years ago with the injury to my right wrist. Now, I am not at that point. Obviously, in this situation, you tend to think the worst things almost every day. You feel bitter—the worst feelings you can have come to you when you have a serious injury. But, somehow, I’ve always found a way to find inside myself the extra motivation that covered up all those bad thoughts and made me get out of bed and go to the gym, or go hit forehands, or go to rehab. In Sydney, I felt in those two matches the same feeling that I might have playing a Grand Slam final, when in reality I was playing an ATP 250 tournament; so, you can imagine how important that was for me emotionally. That was enough for me to realise that tennis is what I love the most, and that I want to recover so I can enjoy it again, and the people can enjoy it too. The fans, they’ve let me know that, because they were getting up at 2 in the morning just to see me, even if they knew I wouldn’t win the tournament. To me, that is priceless and I’m so proud and super grateful to all those people. They’re another reason for me not to give up.
Q: What is your ambition now? What is your goal on the tour in the short term?
JMDP: After everything that has happened to me, all I ask is to be healthy and to be able to play any tournament I want to play, injury-free and with no pain. Knowing me, I’m going to want to win a match, then a tournament, and then climb the rankings. I have faith that with my hand in good condition, I can fight with the best in the world. I don’t know if I will be in top-5 level, or in top-10 level, but beating a top-20 player in Sydney made me believe that I can do that again— and that’s great motivation. That’s what is keeping me confident and with great desire to come back to the tour in the best way possible.
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