The biggest beneficiary of the Olympic Games in men's tennis was obviously Andy Murray. Just below him in the breakthrough department, though, was his fellow medalist Juan Martin del Potro. Much of the tennis world has wondered, for the last year or so, whether del Potro would ever re-scale the heights he reached when he won the U.S. Open in 2009. After having wrist surgery and being cruelly sidelined for most of 2010, del Potro had slowly but steadily worked his way back into the top 20 and into the middle rounds of the Grand Slams. Once there, he typically lost only to the world's best.
In 2011, he fell to Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon; in 2012, he has lost to Roger Federer at the Australian and French Opens and to No. 5 David Ferrer at Wimbledon. During that time, del Potro also won four titles, was recognized as the ATP Comeback Player of the Year in 2011, and is currently No. 8 in the world on the strength of a 44-11 record this season.
Who could complain about that? Still, at one point, the 6-foot-6, heavy-hitting del Potro had looked like the prototype for the tall and powerful player of the future. He had raised expectations higher than quarterfinal losses at the majors and titles in Marseilles. And this year, along with del Potro's successes, there have been reasons to doubt his ability to continue pushing upward.
At Indian Wells in March, he let a Hawk-Eye malfunction early in his quarterfinal against Federer rattle him so badly that he never engaged in the match. In a semifinal loss to Tomas Berdych in Madrid, del Potro was again rattled, by close calls that went against him in each of two tiebreakers. And after racing out, brilliantly, to a two-set lead over Federer at Roland Garros, he mysteriously went away for most of the next three.
Del Potro has struggled with a knee injury this season, but he seemed to have trouble letting things go mentally, as well. He also appeared to be spooked by Federer, who had beaten him five times in 2012 coming into the Olympics. But though Federer would make it a sixth in their semifinal classic at the Games, no one could accuse del Potro of giving anything less than his absolute best for 4.5 hours.
After going up a set and losing a close second-set tiebreaker, he could have caved. After being broken at 10-10 in the third, he could have caved. After going down 40-0 on his serve a few games later, he could have caved. Del Potro never did, and in the process he played his first signature match since his win over the same opponent in that now-distant '09 Open final. Just as impressive, del Potro, in tears after his semifinal defeat in London, rebounded to beat Djokovic, a player he had beaten just once in five previous matches.
With his bronze, del Potro showed what playing for his country meant to him. In his ability to raise his game and shut out all distractions in service of Argentina, he was not unlike his countryman David Nalbandian. The talented Nalbandian has historically underachieved when playing for himself, but his Hall of Fame skills shine in Davis Cup. Del Potro has done more with his own gifts in general than Nalbandian has done with his, but he also brings high intensity and emotion to his own Davis Cup performances.
Del Potro said he was "the happiest man in the world" after winning the bronze. The question now is whether he can get a long-term boost out of it. He should take his close loss to Federer and his rare win over Djokovic as proof that he can still beat, and hang in mentally, with anyone. In the 2009 Open final, del Potro came back from a two sets to one deficit to beat Federer. In the 2012 London Olympics, he stretched Federer to a 36-game third set that left both players in tears. He just might be back.