It was late. So late that it was actually early morning. And Juan Martin del Potro had put up a hell of a fight in the quarterfinal match against Stan Wawrinka. He was facing what looked to be the last game of the match, and he was trying to show some energy for the crowd. Everyone in the stadium knew, had known for a while, that this would be the end of his incredible run at the U.S. Open.
But before it was all over, we got a glimpse of his heart once again.
Just before the first serve of the last game, Juan Martin del Potro burst into tears. The crowd had started cheering for him in the changeover and they roared louder and louder, longer and longer. It was that soccer chant – Olé, olé olé olé, Delpo, Delpo – that always makes me think that people aren’t cheering so much for their countryman as they are for one person who somehow seems like his own entire nation.
Brian Phillips, arguably the best living tennis writer alive, once wrote:
“I love the way tennis people use the word “our” when they talk about the game. It’s like they’re a small, fiercely proud mountain nation…”
In this scenario, I imagine Roger Federer as the benevolent king. Delpo is the People’s Prince. (For the record, Novak Djokovic is the jester, Rafael Nadal is a vengeful knight with a heart of gold, and Andy Murray is the equivalent of the Sheriff of Nottingham.)
I implore you to go watch the video of this extended standing ovation. I don’t know if it’s ESPN or Tumblr that’s making it hard for me to embed it here, but it is worth a few minutes to see the outpouring of love for a man who fought for this glorious moment.
Just think about what he’s gone through. Seven years ago, at 20 years old, he played in the U.S. Open Final and beat his idol, Roger Federer. He was the only person outside of the Big Four – Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray – to take a Grand Slam title between the 2005 French Open and the 2014 U.S. Open. He toppled his hero and was set to become his heir, and then he had surgery on his wrist. He fought his way back, and then he had surgery on his other wrist. So he trained and came back. And then he had another surgery. He fought to come back. And he faced surgery, again. And he came back. The force of will that takes is stunning.
It had a humbling effect on Delpo, I think. He’s always been a kind-hearted human being, always sported that bashful smile. But as a younger player, he was brasher. He still has fight, but that edge has been softened by a real gratitude for just being able to play. Asked how he felt about the crowd’s ovation for him after the match last night, he said in his endearingly halting English:
“Well, something difficult to describe with words. I mean, I can lose the match, but I will never forget this. You know, it’s bigger than win any match. I’m so proud to get that from the crowd, because I have been doing a big effort to play tennis again. They made me so happy tonight, and I don’t mind the score.”
This week I’ve been listening to old cheeseball 90s songs while I work, and that Michael Bolton single, Go the Distance, from the Disney movie Hercules came through my earbuds. As the bridge filled my ears, I thought of Delpo: “But to look beyond the glory is the hardest part. For a hero’s strength is measured by his heart.”
Heroic is the word for Juan Martin. I didn’t know until last night that I could be moved to tears by a tennis match. I was overwhelmed by his effort and the crowd’s love for him and the way he allowed himself to realize how much it all meant right there in the moment. And then, of all things, he clapped for the crowd. He gave it right back to them. It’s been called the best moment of the U.S. Open and I can’t find better words for it.