Whether he beats Novak Djokovic this evening to claim his second grand slam title or not, Juan Martin del Potro will still consider himself a winner.
When he won his first title here nine years ago as a 20-year-old, overpowering first Rafael Nadal and then Roger Federer, Del Potro seemed poised to be a major thorn in the side of the big four.
But six months later he was off the tour after undergoing surgery on his right wrist and, just when he was finally back to his best, he began to feel pain in his left wrist.
Del Potro lost nearly two years, undergoing three operations and fearing his career was finished.
The boot was on the other foot late on Friday when he benefited from another player’s injury, Nadal retiring with knee problems at two sets down in their semi-final encounter. Del Potro was sympathetic, but he could not hide a beaming smile.
“I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another grand slam final here, which is my favourite tournament,” said the 29-year-old. “So it will be special to me. A big challenge, as well, because I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get to this moment.
“It will be a difficult match, of course. But I think I’ve been doing a good tournament. And in the finals, anything can happen. If I win, great. If not, I’ve been playing a great tournament and I will be happy anyway.”
The lowest point came after two wrist operations when he was still unable to play and had to decide whether to go under the knife for a third time.
The friends who have come to New York from his home town of Tandil and been so vocal in their support played an important role in keeping Del Potro believing that things would one day be better.
He said: “The worst moment was in 2015 when I was close to quitting this sport because I couldn’t find a way to fix my wrist problems. I was suffering a lot. I got depressed for a couple of months also. I didn’t get the chance to feel better with myself, to do this again. That was the bad moment for me.
“But I think that is completely in the past, and now I’m having a good present, looking forward for the future. I didn’t expect to get these kinds of emotions playing tennis again. Reaching finals, winning titles, having my highest ranking ever in this moment. Everything is almost perfect.”
The perfect ending, of course, would be victory over Djokovic, a player he has beaten only four times in 18 meetings, today.
“It will be a difficult match because we are close friends,” said the Argentine. “Novak has won Wimbledon already. He’s playing so good. He will be the favourite to win on Sunday.
“But I don’t know. When I played Roger nine years ago, he was the favourite to win as well. I will try to make the surprise again.”
After winning Wimbledon, Djokovic has shown he is indisputably back to his best following elbow surgery and revelled in the cooler conditions in a dominant semi-final victory over Kei Nishikori.
He has the chance to equal Pete Sampras’ tally of 14 slam titles but is wary of Del Potro despite his excellent record against the Argentine.
Djokovic said: “I personally like him very much, not just as a player but as a person. He’s a dear friend, someone that I respect a lot. We all felt for his struggles with injuries. But he was always a top-five player in the eyes, I think, of everyone.
“It was just a matter of time. He’s a big-time player. He’s a big-match player. He’s a grand slam winner. He’s playing the tennis of his life.”
Djokovic has been struggling with the stifling heat in New York these past couple of weeks but he finally looked comfortable on Arthur Ashe Stadium during his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory against Nishikori.
“It felt great. I thought I came in today from the first point with a great intensity, great focus,” said the Serbian. “You have to execute the shots against Kei Nishikori, who is one of the quickest movers. You’ve got to make decisions really quick and I thought I played really well.”
It was the ninth consecutive slam semi-final that the 31-year-old has won and sends him through to a 23rd final. “It means the world to me,” he said. “Every time I accomplish something big I see a new mountain top around the corner. I don’t see any limits.”