Argentine tennis legend Juan Martín del Potro broke down in tears on court in Buenos Aires on Tuesday night as he embarked upon an emotional goodbye to competitive tennis.
The 33-year-old's return to tennis after a two-and-a-half-year injury absence did not go as planned, ending in defeat as he was beaten in straight sets by compatriot Federico Delbonis in the Argentina Open.
Del Potro, or 'Delpo' as he is more commonly known, acknowledged that he was near the end of his career in an on-court post-match interview, saying: "It's possible that we won't meet again."
"Today I gave everything I had, until the last point. I'm happy because my last match was probably on a court and not at a press conference. And in front of all of you. I'm going to remember you always," Del Potro said through tears, addressing fans who had packed the stands.
"Delpo is not leaving," chanted the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation.
In what was expected to be one of Del Potro's final appearances before retiring, the former US Open champion was overcome with emotion after Delbonis wrapped up a 6-1, 6-3 victory in one hour and 23 minutes.
To huge applause, the Tandil-born star wiped away the tears as he prepared to serve what would turn out to be the final game of the match.
After Delbonis completed the victory, Del Potro embraced his opponent at the net before waving to the crowd on the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club's Guillermo Vilas court.
Del Potro, who has won 22 professional tournaments during his career, signalled at the weekend he plans to retire soon after this week’s tournament, describing his comeback as "more a farewell than a return."
"It's difficult to deal with so much pain. I'm not here for a miracle comeback," he confessed pre-match, confirming that his last two scheduled tournaments would be the ATP 250 in Buenos Aires and the ATP 500 in Rio de Janeiro, starting on February 14.
Tuesday's defeat was Del Potro's first event since fracturing his kneecap in June 2019 at Queen's in London. He was given a loud cheer as he walked on court but was unable to deliver what would have been a fairytale win.
After taking the opening game with a break of serve, Del Potro was hampered by his lack of mobility thereafter, with Delbonis rattling off three breaks of serve to win the first set in 33 minutes.
Del Potro put up stronger resistance in the second set, but was ultimately overpowered by Delbonis.
When the match was over, he took off his white headband and hung it over the net – a symbolic gesture with an obvious meaning.
Del Potro, who beat Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open final, said his knee troubles had left him "living a nightmare" with four surgeries seeing his world ranking slip to 757.
Tributes to the ‘Torre de Tandil’ flooded in, as fans also expressed their support on social media.
"Your tears are those of all of us who love and are close to the sport," wrote legendary basketball player Manu Ginóbili, an Olympic gold medallist in Athens 2004 with four NBA rings.
“We really enjoyed watching you play. You made us vibrate so many times. Thank you for what you gave to this sport. Today you have your life ahead of you,” wrote fellow tennis legend Gabriela Sabatini.