“Olé, olé, olé, olé. Delpo, Delpo!”
In each of Juan Martin del Potro’s matches in his run to the US Open final, the sing-song soccer chants have bellowed in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In a different donated suite every match, a group of 14 of the Argentine’s childhood pals gave it their all throughout the Open. At nearly every changeover, they introduced a taste of Latin American fútbol fever in Flushing Meadows.
Up until the final, they propelled del Potro to victory, their enthusiasm as noisy as Delpo’s thunderous forehands.
“La banda de delpo llegó, oh, oh, oh, eh-oh!”
Before the final against Novak Djokovic, the gang – housed in yet another new suite – predicted, “It’s going to be a good match, a difficult one. Either player could win. But the advantage Juan has is that he has us!”
Alas, on Sunday afternoon, try as they might, they weren’t able to pull their friend through.
The group of amigos journeyed to New York from Buenos Aires and Tandil, del Potro’s hometown, to cheer on Juan Martín for the first time at a tournament outside Argentina. They booked a two-week trip, and as luck would have it, their buddy made it all the way to the second Grand Slam final of his career. His first was here, too – back in 2009, when the tall Argentine came back to defeat Roger Federer for his first and only major title.
Schoolmates in Tandil, they have been friends since they were five years old.
Juan, as he is known to his buddies, is “uno más” – one more belonging to the group, just taller and a whole lot more famous.
“When Juan is in Argentina, we always see him. A few of us live in Buenos Aires, so we may see him more. But he always comes back to Tandil.”
Asked if Juan Martín – known as “the Gentle Giant’ – is as genuine, humble and approachable as he seems, the group affirmed that he is. “When he’s out with us, you’d never know he’s any different. Never suspect he’s one of the three best players in the world.
“When he won the US Open the first time, when he’s had hard times with injuries, he’s always been the same with us.”
The group always get together when del Potro has a break from the tour. “We go fishing, we do asados [barbecues], the most banal things that friends do.”
“It doesn’t matter what, he’s always a part of it.”
For their first time in New York, the group rented a house together in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which they found on Airbnb. “It’s a beautiful neighborhood,” they said. “Like in a movie.”
“We all have different situations, jobs, etc. It took a huge effort on everyone’s part to make this work. In the end, our desire to do it won out.”
Asked if they had girlfriends or wives or families that they had to negotiate this trip with, they laughed. “No!,” they joked. "That’s why we’re all here together!” In truth, several have girlfriends “that [they’re] going to have to go shopping for and get some really good presents.”
Tandil, a city of just over 100,000 that's about four hours (220 miles) south of Buenos Aires, isn’t well known to foreigners – it’s not really on the Argentine tourist route – but it has produced a number of soccer and tennis stars (including Juan Monaco and Mariano Zabaleta), as well as the current president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri.
“The idea took off when we started to think about how long Juan would keep playing, and we wanted to do this before any of us got married or had families. At first it was two, then three, then four. We never expected to be this many. By the time there were already eight committed, the rest of us then didn’t want to miss out.
“Although this isn’t the entire group. The whole group is 25.”
One of the group’s members wasn’t in the suite with the group. He works as an assistant for del Potro and sits in his player’s box.
On the day of the final, a half hour before Juan Martin was to take the court to play Djokovic, the guys in the suite looked a bit tense. “We’re nervous but also excited,” said the guys – Julio, Manuel, Marcos, Trinch, Beto, Sebastián, Manuel, Benjamín, Pinti, Nicolás, and Winny. “Winnie?” I ask. “Like Winnie Pooh!” the others jeer.
A story in La Nación, an Argentine newspaper, had identified the group as “La Banda de Salamín,” a reference to Tandil’s well-known charcuterie and salami. But the guys laughed that off. “One of our songs refers to Tandil and its salamín. Someone heard that, misinterpreted the lyrics and stuck us with the name.”
“In actuality, we are La Banda de Tandil.”
That’s probably a good thing, since La Banda de Salamín translates loosely to “The Sausage Posse.”
When del Potro played the American John Isner in the quarterfinals, the gang and other Delpo supporters in the stadium turned the tables on the American’s home-court advantage. On that day, an excessively hot and humid afternoon, the group stood for what seemed like the entire match, chanting at changeovers and baking in the bright sun.
Their stamina seemed greater even than del Potro’s.
After his semifinal win over Rafael Nadal, del Potro was asked if his buddies practiced their cheers. ”Yeah, they don't have nothing to do,” said the Argentine player, smiling and ribbing his friends. “They just practice the songs.”
“They made an incredible effort to be here,” he said, turning serious. “For me, it’s really special. I’m very thankful.”
After his quarterfinal victory, Juan Martín was asked if he planned to go out and celebrate with the group. “That could be dangerous for me. I have to do my own job, then we will find time for that.”
The final of the US Open may not have turned out the way del Potro or La Banda de Tandil had hoped. But based on a glimpse of their enduring friendship, it’s a good bet that they’ll find plenty of time together.