Nicolás Almagro and Juan Martín del Potro were struggling to move, but when Almagro stopped completely, it produced one of the most moving scenes in recent French Open memory.
An hour and a half into their second-round match on Thursday, Almagro hunched over, hands on his knees, barely glancing up to see del Potro’s serve sail past him. He stayed bent over and shook his head as the umpire and del Potro moved toward him. A recurring left knee injury had worsened throughout the match.
When Almagro dropped his racket in resignation and covered his face with both hands, it was clear the match, which had been deadlocked at 6-3, 3-6, 1-1, was over.
The 6-foot-6-inch Del Potro, known as the sport’s gentle giant, had been struggling with a groin injury since midway through the first set. But seeing Almagro in need, he swung one leg and then the other over the net and walked toward his opponent, whose sobs grew louder before he fell backward onto the red clay, his chest heaving as he cried.
As medical attendants ran onto the court, del Potro crouched beside Almagro and tried to comfort him. Del Potro signaled for a bottle of water to be brought over, even opened it for Almagro, and helped him stand up.
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As they walked together toward their chairs, Almagro, still disconsolate, turned back to embrace del Potro. When Almagro sat down in his chair and again put his head in his hands, del Potro sat down next to him, rubbed his head and tried to say consoling words.
“I just do what my heart feels,” del Potro said after the match.
Although the sun has shone throughout this French Open, a contrast to last year’s soggy “Drench Open,” tears have flooded onto the clay several times during this emotional first week. On Wednesday, Steve Johnson broke down on Court 6 after reaching the third round just weeks after the death of his father.
“Oh, boy,” the commentator Mary Carillo said on Tennis Channel as del Potro soothed Almagro, “this sport is going to kill me.”
Del Potro, the United States Open champion in 2009 who has struggled with injuries in his stop-and-start career, said he tried to lift Almagro’s spirit by mentioning positive things in his life, to put his continued injury frustrations in tennis in perspective.
“I say to him, ‘Try to be calm.’ Try to think about his family, his baby,” del Potro said. “And, sometimes, the heart is first.”
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SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES, by BEN ROTHENBERG