Mats Wilander has paid tribute to Juan Martin del Potro following his 6-1 6-3 defeat to Federico Delbonis at the Argentina Open, a match which may well prove to be the last of his professional career.
Del Potro returned to the court on Tuesday after two and a half years battling back from a severe knee injury but, despite showing incredible grit, he could not keep pace with his friend and compatriot. Delbonis won the match in an hour and 23 minutes, consoling Del Potro at the net at the end.
Having struggled to fight back tears towards the end of the match, the 2009 US Open winner hinted at the possibility of retirement afterwards. “Possibly we may not meet again,” he told the crowd in Buenos Aires, who had roared him on throughout.
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Asked in his post-match press conference if the match was his last as a professional, he replied: “I want to relax, talk to the doctors again and then we’ll see.”
In light of those comments Eurosport pundit and former world No 1 Wilander has spoken of his admiration for Del Potro, who fractured his kneecap at Queen’s in 2019 and, since then, has undergone several operations to have his knee surgically rebuilt in an attempt to launch a comeback.
“The first feeling I actually had was how big he is in Argentina and his home country,” Wilander said. “Obviously having Guillermo Vilas come from there, Gabriela Sabatini, both Grand Slam former champions… Juan Martin del Potro seems to be more loved somehow.
“When you look at his resume, you realise that, of course, he won the US Open in 2009, beating [Rafa] Nadal in the semis, [Roger] Federer in the final, it was unbelievable. But then he also won the Davis Cup for Argentina, the only time they won that, and then he was a silver and a bronze medalist in the Olympics. So he was really a man of his country.
“I played Davis Cup against him many times as a captain for the Swedish team, and he brought the vibe. And the people’s champion is what it seemed like to me.

Tearful Del Potro beaten in potential farewell match at Argentina Open

“The vibe there in Buenos Aires last night was incredible. I was watching on live TV.
“Juan Martin del Potro, he really should have been one out of the Big Five. To me, it’s not the Big Three… it could be the Big Four with Andy Murray and, to me, Del Potro would have qualified as part of the Big Five. He would have won way more than he did should he have been healthy.”
Wilander also praised Del Potro’s fighting spirit, adding: “I admire the guts that someone like Del Potro has to actually be willing to go onto a proper ATP tournament and play against Federico Delbonis, who easily could beat him 6-1 6-1 depending on how Del Potro feels.
“So I admire the guts that it takes to not worry what it looks like. I’m sure he knew that there was going to be a celebration more than anything. But, at the same time, Delbonis needs to win this match. He needs points and it’s a serious match for him. So I admire the guts that it took.
“I also admire the fact that, obviously, when you’re doing a regular ATP Tour tournament, you’re not inviting your best friends only. I mean, you’re expecting the people of Argentina hopefully to come out and support you, but you don’t really know.
“And I think with Del Potro, I think that also takes a lot of guts. There could have been 500 people there, empty stands, but there wasn’t. It was completely packed and they really celebrated him as a hero.
“So what becomes clear to me is, when you see him come on the court and play, you realise that, in silence, he has been fighting for so many years and over so many surgeries, and we really haven’t talked about him enough during these breaks because we’ve always been occupied by the other Big Three or Big Four.
“Del Potro, really, I mean, he should have been one of them. He would have been. He beat Nadal and Federer in their prime in a Slam and he beat Novak Djokovic in the Olympics in his prime.
“So I think Del Potro is slightly overlooked. But just the fact that he’s been fighting this for so many years on his own, in silence, and we, the rest of the world, really haven’t paid enough attention… he mentally has been trying so many times and for so many years, knowing ‘I have the game to threaten the Big Four’ and not being able to pursue that passion of his and become the best player he can be. To me, it’s heartbreaking to watch him last night.”
Asked about Del Potro’s legacy, Wilander gave a thoughtful response. “To me, Del Potro’s legacy is, and I think I’ve heard this nickname before, the Gentle Giant,” he said.
“He was an unbelievable competitor and he was as big a fighter as the other top players, Roger, Rafa, Novak and Andy, for sure. At the net, there was always this very heartfelt handshake or often even a hug.
“And, of course, he’s much taller than the other four in the Big Four. So it always looked like he was kind of the big brother, although he was the youngest.
“So, to me, [he was] the Gentle Giant that never gave up, that always had the belief in the power in his game, his serve and his forehand and then his South American, I would call it, passion.
“To me, it’s more along the lines of Rafa Nadal. There’s a deeper connection to the game of tennis where he shows the people: ‘Of course I care, so does everybody else. But this means more to me as a human being, as a person, to actually give my best and be 100 per cent prepared.’
“So that’s what I remember from him, that he could have won so many matches against the Big Four, could have won more majors. But there was always this unbelievable respect between him and the other Big Four.”
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