When Juan Martin del Potro flattens out his forehand, the earth shakes. It’s an awesome shot, and it’s a shame that we don’t see it more often. Del Potro’s career is one of the great what-ifs of this era, if not tennis history in general. Eight years have passed since he won the U.S. Open as a 20-year-old, an avatar of a future tennis game played by giants with dimension-bending power. Nearly seven have passed since del Potro hurt his wrist and dropped from the world’s top 400. From there, you probably know the rest of the story.
Or you don’t, which in a way is just as telling. Del Potro hasn’t so much had a career arc as he’s had a career sine wave. The Argentine finished 2009 as the fifth-ranked player on tour. At the end of 2010, he was 258th. At the end of 2013, he was fifth again, and at the conclusion of the 2015 season, he was barely inside the top 600. Last year he rose from the dead and won a silver medal in Rio. This year, seeded 24th, he’s reached his second consecutive U.S. Open quarterfinal after an inverted parabola of a match, crawling out of a two-set hole to top 6-seed Dominic Thiem 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4.
Thiem was the last holdout in a draw that sacrificed the rest of its young hopes, including Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, during the tournament’s first week. Thiem was one of only two top-10 players besides Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal remaining after three rounds of mayhem; through two sets, he looked to be heading toward a quarterfinal face-off with a less-than-healthy Federer—an opportunity that could disrupt the tournament’s proposed crown jewel, the Federer-Nadal semifinal.
While taking a drubbing in the early sets, del Potro, suffering from a virus, called for a trainer and took a pain reliever; it was unclear if he would even be able to finish the match. But of course, nothing with the big Argentine is ever so predictable. He shattered Thiem’s serve in the third set, flagged in the fourth, and then fended off two match points before forcing, and winning, a tiebreak.
With the match in a deciding set, del Potro began hitting downhill. Thiem is a dramatic, sharp striker of the ball, but del Potro’s size allows him to generate unmatched power. On off days, and when his matches begin to go off the rails, his forehand still fires, but it sprays long and wide. On Monday, once the fifth set came around, the Argentine’s most ambitious tries skidded ambiguously near the lines. Hopeful Thiem challenges came back unsuccessful.
Del Potro, soft spoken, gracious, and usually radiating with a muted positivity, is a fan favorite, not only for his teddy-bear-like appearance and mythic groundstrokes, but because of his proclivity to play dramatic matches that stretch into the New York night. As he pressured Thiem’s serve in the final set of his comeback, the fans on Grandstand chanted his name, trying to will him over the finish line. On the final point of the match, no ground-shattering forehand was necessary. On break point, Thiem kicked a second serve to del Potro’s backhand side. No rally ensued. The Argentine challenged the service call. Hawk-Eye showed the ball land wide.
On the other side of the draw, a total wasteland where the technical favorite to play on the final Sunday is 12th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta, del Potro would have a clear path to his second major final. From his current spot in the bracket, it will be a miracle if he glimpses the tournament’s final weekend. But we’ve assumed many conventional endings for del Potro already. He’ll never be the upward-swinging phenom he once was, but, on stolen time, we won’t need to look on his losses with regret as the tennis world once did. The odds have been stacked against the big man for years now. He hasn’t been able to completely turn them in his favor, but it’s still fun as hell to watch him try.