Del Potro: Tennis players love their football

In part two of an exclusive interview, the world’s seventh-ranked tennis player Juan Martin del Potro spoke to about the passion for football on the tour, his friendship with Lionel Messi and Brazil 2014. How do you manage to follow Boca when you’re playing on the tour?
Juan Martin del Potro: I do what I can. I’ll either go online, phone friends up or look for a bar, depending on the tournament I’m at. I’ll get out of bed at any time to watch Boca. When I was 16 I played at the Orange Bowl. I was one of the favourites to win and Boca were playing in the Intercontinental Cup against Milan. It was four in the morning in Miami and they wouldn’t let me get up to watch it. I put the TV on ever so quietly, though, and watched the whole game, which went to penalties and lasted forever. Then an hour later I went out and lost 6-2, 6-2. Everyone wanted to kill me but I was so pleased. Boca had won the Intercontinental Cup, after all, and mine was just another tournament.
Do you still do things like that now that you’re professional?
(Laughs) I’ve grown up a little bit in that respect. If I’ve got a very important match, I won’t get up at four in the morning, though when I was at Wimbledon last year Boca were playing in the final of the Libertadores at two or three in the morning London time. Franco (Davin, Del Potro’s coach) looked at me as if to say: ‘Don’t even think about getting up to watch the game’. I did anyway, but I still went out and won the next day.
Tell us about this habit you have of giving Boca shirts out to players on the tour.
I gave one to Federer, who’s a fan. Nadal is an Estudiantes man. Juan Monaco got in there ahead of me. Then there’s Tsonga, who’s a real fan and went to see them in the USA. He was already a fan but I’ve been pushing him along.  And there’s Marin Cilic too. A Croat who’s a Boca fan – that sounds a bit weird. There are a lot of tennis players who like their football. 

Tell us about handing the shirt over to Federer.
It was all pretty natural, as he likes football a lot. He knows a lot about all the teams and we’d chat about Boca. We were on our own in the locker room once on semi-finals day at Roland Garros. There was no one else around and we started chatting. The subject of Boca came up and I had the shirt ready and said: ‘This is for you, Roger’. Then, when he came to Buenos Aires, the La Bombonera was amazing. He was really taken by it.
Do you joke among yourselves?
There’s respect between us. The Spanish are big fans too. They’re either Barça or Real Madrid fans and I show what I know because I tell them I can compete with them for Intercontinental Cups. It’s always good fun, though. What’s surprising is that there are quite a few of them who are really up on it, like the standings in Argentina – the whole lot. Rafa is very knowledgeable and is a huge Real Madrid fan. Djokovic really roots for Milan and he knows a lot about football too.
If Djokovic were Barcelona and Nadal Madrid, which club would Del Potro be?
I’m Boca. There are times when I’m playing when I have to win like Boca because I don’t feel great or I’m not on top of my game. I say to myself: ‘This guy has to know who he’s up against and I have to win no matter that it takes’. Tennis matches can last a long time and there are lots of times when all sorts of things can go through your mind. I often think about the Boca attitude, what Boca means across the world, and about how many times they’ve won games you say they’ve lost, only for them to come back like Boca can. Sometimes in tournaments I’ll see Argentinians with Boca shirts and flags and that gives me a boost.
Can you think of one game in particular where you’ve felt like that?
Miami 2009, in the semis against Rafa Nadal. What a match. It was like playing at La Bombonera. The stadium was packed and people were singing football songs. I was 3-0 down in the third set and came back to win. It really was like La Bombonera, and the atmosphere wasn’t like a tennis match at all. The games against Murray and Djokovic at Indian Wells this year were like that too.   
Is there a football atmosphere at tennis matches in Argentina?
Yes, but in a good way. People have become very passionate about tennis and after I won the US Open in 2009 I felt there was a boom and the fans got that much more into it. Whenever I play there’s always a bigger atmosphere than there is for other players. Djokovic and Federer have said that to me. They say to me: ‘They’re always singing ‘Delpo, Delpo, Delpo’ when we play you.’ It makes it fun. I feel like the home boy serving against Federer and Nadal, who are the greatest players in the history of the game.

Who do you feel is the best footballer in the world?
Messi. He’s got an edge over the rest. A lot of people say Cristiano is just a level below but I’m surprised by what (Andres) Iniesta, Xavi and (Wayne) Rooney can do. They’re real stars. I’m not saying Cristiano isn’t better than them but they’re right up there too. Bayern Munich have got a lot of great players too and they’ve won the Champions League and the German League with a massive points difference. Right now, though, Lio is ahead of that group.
What kind of a relationship do you have with him?
We chat from time to time and send each other messages. He likes tennis and I know he watches my games. I congratulated him when he became a father. I’d love to see more of him but we just don’t have the time. I have a lot of admiration for him. (Diego) Maradona also came to see me in Dubai, which was great and very exciting for me. Tennis has given me these unique experiences and they’ll stay with me forever.

When you talk about football you sound more like an excited little boy than a leading tennis player.
Yes, that’s right. That happened to me with Martin Palermo, who was my idol. He came to see me one day and when I saw him and realised who it was, I was dumbstruck. We just stopped what we were doing obviously. I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t believe it.

You played in Palermo’s farewell match. What do you remember of that day?
I experienced it more like a fan and frustrated football player than a friend of Palermo’s. It was a dream for me to play for a few minutes at a packed Bombonera. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in football. I was shaking all over. I took it seriously too, even though it was a friend’s farewell game. It was a dream, just amazing. I was loving it because every time I touched the ball I did the right thing, and the fans were applauding me (laughs). I proved what I’ve always said: that I played football and I played it well.

What plans are you making for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™?
I’m going to go if I get the chance. I nearly went to South Africa in 2010 because I had a hand injury and wasn’t playing. Brazil is closer and I’d love to go. I think Argentina are looking really good and I think Messi knows it’s a unique opportunity. It’s not just about him, though, and we shouldn’t put too much pressure on him. But if he keeps on improving the way he has been, Argentina will be one of the favourites along with hosts Brazil and Spain, who’ve been so consistent.
What does an Argentina-Brazil Final at the Maracana say to you?
We’d all go to that. The only thing is, will they let us back (laughs).

Click on the link on the right to read part one of this interview.