PARIS — Juan Martin del Potro is going to get a lot of credit for his performance at the French Open. He had spent the last two years rehabilitating his wrist, which was severely mangled in two gruesome defeats at Roland Garros, last year’s and 2008’s final. His return to the surface was the stuff of legend, especially given that his previous best result at the tournament was a semi-final appearance. He exceeded even that, winning the title.
Del Potro had spent so much time getting healthy that, by the time he came to Paris, there was a hollowness to him and his tennis. But he came out in a blaze of noise at Roland Garros this year. He powered his way to fourth-round and quarter-final spots. The 6-foot-6 Argentinian physically controlled his opponents. In the final, he had a long-range forehand that barely fluttered — a sign that he was in charge of his movement.
Juan Martin del Potro looked a living reminder of the indomitable human spirit at Roland Garros. It was a sight that even Nadal was stunned by. That feeling of dominance had sapped away during his second-round rout of his good friend Richard Gasquet; soon after that, a television interview with the two left-handers in which they offered assurances that the good times could return for them both wore thin.
“They don’t play with a better spirit,” said Del Potro, when asked about Nadal. “I think the spirit he has in the court, he doesn’t show it at all.”
“Even though it’s another season, and I have never won [a] Grand Slam, you can see,” Nadal said, gesturing to his young rival. “You can read why it’s possible. Even though it’s another season, and it’s completely different.”
Asked about that exchange, Nadal appeared unmoved. “This isn’t the right moment to talk about that,” he said.
Nadal seemed animated. He was clearly focused. He was eager to speak, eager to show again that his troubles are behind him. A good attitude is about more than just the mind, however. It can mean hard work, training and a commitment to “ingrained routines” of the routine. Last week, the French Open revealed a swanky new media center with gleaming wooden floors and a conference room big enough to seat 80 people. All day every day, those who worked in the center had different microphones and coffee mugs in their hands.
Del Potro’s well-known habits include not caring about who he is in the tennis world. His most famous post-match quote said, in part, “So I don’t care. I’ll do my best here, then win in New York. I’ll wait until the end of the year, then take the tournament.” That attitude was easily understandable. “I don’t do anything different,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “If you train good, you want to play good. If you prepare the right way, you want to perform the best you can. I don’t take any special time; that is the only way you can do it. I don’t train very hard; I just train the right way.”
The French Open is 10 weeks away, a formidable place to start the chase for a calendar Grand Slam. But already the journeys began: Nadal, the seven-time Roland Garros champion, and Del Potro. Both men are in the top 10, both are much more than their titles: