BUENOS AIRES -- Soccer is the king of sports in Argentina.
The sport has ruled unchallenged here for nearly a century and should continue to do so in the next decades. But this weekend, tennis stole the show, thanks to Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open.
Delpo's last two matches at Flushing Meadows, a semifinal victory over Rafael Nadal on Friday and his loss in the final to Novak Djokovic on Sunday, saw him compete simultaneously with the two biggest soccer clubs in the country, Boca Juniors and River Plate. Sports fanatics had a tough choice, but on both occasions, tennis scored unpredictable wins (ESPN aired the US Open in Argentina).
True, it was not a typical sports weekend, given that FIFA friendlies meant the local league was in recess and some top footballers were absent. But Boca had to play a one-leg Cup game on Friday, and River scheduled a friendly on a Sunday with scarce soccer offering -- and both of them faced first-division opposition. The two matches were scheduled on open cable TV, which provided a good opportunity for fans to watch Boca and River live and for no extra charge because league action airs via pay-per-view.
On Friday, Del Potro-Nadal started 40 minutes before the kickoff between Boca and San Martin (Tucuman) in a Copa Argentina Round of 32 matchup. The first set, which lasted 1 hour, 9 minutes, saw Del Potro one point ahead of Boca's first half-hour of play.
Not surprisingly, rating indicators showed avid fans switching screens when the first set ended, giving Boca a two-point advantage as Delpo and Nadal rested. But the same fans then returned for the second at the 15-minute pause at halftime between Boca and San Martin, with tennis taking a 3.5-point ratings lead.
Had Nadal not decided to quit after losing the second set, it would had been interesting to see what happened as both events entered their deciding stages (Boca finally won 2-0, with two late second-half goals).
On Sunday, things were more one-sided, with Del Potro-Djokovic, on average, eight points ahead of the friendly matchup between River and Talleres (Cordoba), with both events starting roughly at the same time. Again, there was nothing at stake, and River fielded mostly reserves (and lost 3-1), but few events can show better numbers than the two biggest clubs in the country and all in the same weekend.
Tennis is a popular sport here in Argentina, but it cannot boast of a No. 2 ranking behind soccer without a debate: basketball, volleyball, motor sports and even field hockey and rugby could challenge tennis' popularity
Despite his talent and his achievements, Del Potro was not always a favorite of the Argentine sports fan.
The Tandil native had a breakthrough season when still in his teens, in the second half of 2008, becoming the first player to win his first four ATP titles in consecutive manner: Stuttgart, Kitzbühel, Los Angeles and Washington. He was a key to Argentina's defeat of Russia in a Davis Cup semifinal rubber and qualified to play the Masters Cup in London.
All those results soon helped him become the best tennis player in the country and made him popular -- quickly -- but in the end, it proved to be a sweet and sour year for Delpo. He returned from London injured and lost his only match in the Davis Cup final clash against visiting Spain, who could not count on Nadal but managed to record a stunning 3-1 win.
After letting go a chance to lift the trophy for the first time, discussions within the Argentine camp became public, captain Alberto Mancini resigned, and the players were blamed for thinking too much about themselves, especially the two aces, Del Potro and David Nalbandian. Nothing but finally winning the cup would heal those wounds.
Still, Del Potro had a great 2009, which included winning the US Open in a five-set final against Roger Federer, then-world No. 1 and champion of the previous five editions at Flushing. Back in his hometown, Delpo was greeted by more than 15,000 fans, and when he reached the Masters Cup final in November (eventually losing to Nikolai Davydenko), it seemed like only good news lay ahead.
But early in 2010, Del Potro suffered a left wrist injury that forced him to undergo surgery and miss action for most of the season. It was the first of three wrist surgeries and one of many rest periods in a five-year span during which Delpo considered retirement several times.
In between, an Olympic bronze medal in London in 2012 and several titles (11) showed that he did belong to the elite of the sport. But would he, because of his injury history, be able regain consistent form and maintain it?
Fast-forward more than five years to 2016: After his third wrist surgery in June 2015, Del Potro slowly but surely became his usual self, but with a different, "one-day-at-a-time" approach. Feeling like the former player he almost became, he started to enjoy every moment, knowing that it could be the last.
That way he got his second Olympic medal, a silver one, falling to Andy Murray in the Rio 2016 final after disposing of Djokovic (first round) and Nadal (in the semis). More importantly, Del Potro reconnected with the Argentine fans, who made the two-hour trip to Brazil by the thousands.
An emotional Del Potro celebrated and cried with them, literally throwing himself into their arms after each victory. The public recognized his struggle to get back to the top and empathized with this new version of a player no longer afraid to show his feelings.
A magical year had not ended: Delpo soon gained revenge against Murray away in Glasgow, winning a key, five-set battle in the Davis Cup semifinal between their nations. He followed that in the final with another epic five-setter in Zagreb, returning from 0-2 down against Marin Cilic to grab another vital point and help Argentina defeat Croatia 3-2 to, finally, conquer the Davis Cup.
Olympic and Davis Cup success were partly responsible for this renewed romance, but the manner mattered the most: that he was able, against all odds, to come back from what looked like early retirement and, above all, that he let fans take part in his joyride.
Del Potro, 29, probably still has a chance to become world No. 1. This year he became ATP's No. 3 player, his best ranking (he dropped to No. 4 after losing the US Open final to Djokovic), and he should still be around when Federer and Nadal finally retire. But if it never happens, it does not seem to bother him. Instead, he seems happy enough having proven that he can still play at the top level and, in the process, enjoy as never before the profession he chose.
When Del Potro finally waves goodbye, soccer will still be the No. 1 sport in Argentina. But at the same time, Argentine fans will remember that, while Lionel Messi & Co. failed to bring titles and seldom captivated the eye, a big guy fought relentlessly, opened his heart and, in the process, conquered theirs.