Column: After detours in their careers, Djokovic and Del Potro savor the rare return to greatness

Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro rediscovered their love for tennis when injuries prevented them from playing and sent their rankings and their spirits plummeting. Djokovic’s elbow had bothered him for two years; he finally chose surgery that cut his 2017 season in half. Del Potro waited years to find the right remedy for searing wrist pain that sapped the impact of his famously fierce forehand. Retirement crossed his mind in 2015. “I been suffering a lot,” the 29-year-old Argentinian said. “I got depressed for couple of months, also.”

Del Potro, who finally got relief from the third surgery on his left wrist, adapted to his circumstances by developing an effective slice backhand. Djokovic, a former world No. 1, had to endure early losses in a string of tournaments early this year — including at Indian Wells — before he prevailed at Wimbledon. With their struggles behind them, the longtime friends and former U.S. Open champions have an enhanced appreciation for the fates that brought them together to meet at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday for the U.S. Open title, their 19th career meeting but first in a Grand Slam final.

Del Potro, who won his lone Grand Slam title here in 2009, advanced to the final when 2017 champion and No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal retired because of knee pain after Del Potro had built a 7-6 (3), 6-2 lead in their semifinal. “I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam finals in here, which is my favorite tournament. So it would be special to me,” said del Potro, the No. 6 seed. “Would be a big challenge, as well, because I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get in this moment.”

Djokovic, a runner-up here five times and the winner in 2011 and 2015, fed off Kei Nishikori’s 51 unforced errors in the other semifinal in carving out a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory. Djokovic, 31, missed the Open last year because of his elbow but has charged through a field that was scrambled by a rash of upsets this year. “It’s definitely one of my favorite tournaments to play because of the conditions and because of the fact that I’ve played so well in each year that I keep on coming back to the U.S. Open,” Djokovic said. “I know that I feel very comfortable here.”


Djokovic plotted a smart strategy on Friday and executed it well, negating Nishikori’s speed and putting pressure on the No. 21 seed from Japan. “I thought in the important moments I came up with some good second serves, some good first serves. I was returning well,” Djokovic said. “I was constantly putting pressure on him, trying to move him around the court, take away the rhythm from him, not give him the same look always. The match was really, really good from my side.”

Del Potro, ranked a career-best No. 3 in the world, traded early service breaks with Nadal but soon after the Spaniard felt a twinge in his right knee. Nadal, who has been troubled in the past by tendinitis, tried to gut out the match with a constant grimace on his face, but his attempt was futile. After Del Potro ended the second set with a forehand winner that Nadal didn’t try to chase, Nadal waved his arms to signify that he could play no more and embraced Del Potro.

“That was not a tennis match at the end, no? It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court,” said Nadal, whose 45-4 record this year includes an injury-forced retirement at the Australian Open and his 11th career French Open title. He said he believed the knee wasn’t a long-term problem but was clearly upset that he couldn’t finish.

“Is not about losing. Is about don’t have the chance to fight for it,” he said. I feel that I fighted all my career against these kind of things, too. … All my career everybody say that because of my style I will have a short career. I’m still here. I’m still here because I love what I am doing. I still have the passion for the game. I’m going to keep fighting and working hard to keep enjoying this tour and keep having chances to compete at the highest level.”


Nadal initially said he couldn’t say he was happy for Del Potro. He eventually softened. Del Potro has that effect on people. “I know how much frustration can be when you can’t do the thing that you want to do. He knows very well,” Nadal said. “Happy to him that he’s able to be back in his top level. Yeah, wish him all the best.”

Del Potro proclaimed Djokovic to be the favorite on Sunday based on Djokovic’s success at Wimbledon and overall performance. “But I don’t know,” Del Potro said. “When I played Roger [Federer] nine years ago, he was the favorite to win as well. I will try to make the surprise again.”

Djokovic fondly described Del Potro as “a gentle giant” who has many friends on the tour. “He’s working his way up. He’s playing some really powerful tennis,” said Djokovic, who is doing the same thing. That they’re both back on top is a gift for them and for the sport.


Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen