NEW YORK (AP) — It was in 2015, the year of his fourth wrist operation, that Juan Martin del Potro was pretty sure he’d had enough.
Enough of the risks of surgery. Enough of working his way back only to get injured yet again. Enough, really, of tennis.
By then, so much time had passed since his crowning achievement, winning the 2009 U.S. Open at age 20 by beating Roger Federer in five sets in the final. So much of that time had felt wasted. And del Potro was in a dark place.
As he prepares to play in his first Grand Slam final since that one nearly a decade ago, meeting 13-time major champion Novak Djokovic for the championship at Flushing Meadows on Sunday, del Potro seems at ease talking about it all.
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“I couldn’t find a way to fix my wrist problems. I (was) suffering a lot. I got depressed for a couple of months, also. I didn’t get the chance to feel better with myself, to do this again. That was the bad moment for me,” said the 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Argentine with the 100 mph (160 kph) forehand and 135 mph (215 kph) serves. “But I think that is completely in the past. And now I’m having a good present, looking forward for the future.”
“Everything,” he added with a smile, “is almost perfect.”
Now ranked a career-high No. 3, del Potro would establish a professional-era record for most major appearances from a first to a second such title, 22, if he wins Sunday.
It was shortly after that triumph nine years ago in New York that del Potro’s surgery on his dominant right wrist happened. That was followed by three procedures on his left wrist, which sidelined him for 2½ years’ worth of Grand Slam tournaments.
When he returned, he had to rebuild his backhand, first by relying solely on a slice, and only recently able to strike meaningful two-handed shots with confidence.
“I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get (to) this moment. I’m here now,” he said after advancing when defending champion Rafael Nadal quit after two sets in their semifinal because of right knee tendinitis.
Djokovic can relate to the climb back from a body breakdown.
For the better part of two years, he dealt with pain in his right elbow. Djokovic shut himself down for the last half of 2017, sitting out the U.S. Open among other events and, after a brief attempt to play at the start of this season, had an operation in February.
Now he is one win from a second consecutive Grand Slam title, after his triumph at Wimbledon in July.
“It absolutely gives me empathy. Even before I went through the whole process of surgery, post-surgery recovery, I was still feeling for players that went through injuries,” Djokovic said.
“There was always part of me that believed I could come back relatively quickly to the level of tennis that I once was playing. But at the same time, I felt like the six months off served me very well to find new motivation, inspiration, to recharge my batteries, and also to understand how I want to continue playing tennis, in which way, whether there are certain changes that I want to make with my racket and my game itself,” he continued. “I had more time to work on certain things.”
This will be Djokovic’s eighth U.S. Open final, equaling Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras for the most for a man in the 50-year professional era, but he is only 2-5 so far. In addition to seeking a third trophy at Flushing Meadows, he is trying to collect No. 14 from all Slams, which would pull even with Sampras for the third-most for a man, trailing only Federer’s 20 and Nadal’s 17.
Djokovic is 14-4 against del Potro across their careers, including 4-0 at majors, and is pleased to see him at this level again.
“I personally like him very much, not just as a player but as a person. He’s a dear friend, someone that I respect a lot. We all felt for his struggles with injuries that kept him away from the tour for two, three years,” Djokovic said. “But he was always a top-five player in the eyes, I think, of everyone, even when he dropped his ranking and started to work his way up. But we all knew that he has a capacity and a quality to get to the point where he is at the moment. It was just a matter of time.”
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