As Juan Martin Del Potro stepped onto the Emirates Airbus A319 on Sunday morning — the exclusive, executive private jet service from Emirates Airline — his head nearly brushed the ceiling.
In the UAE for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship, the No 5 tennis player in the world was taking a brief break from practicing on the court to film his part for the DDF Full of Surprises Travel Show. At just under two metres tall, the highest-ranked Argentine in the sport towered well over the camera and cabin crew shadowing him, keeping his shoulders hunched and his head ducked to wander along the narrow aisle.
But despite his large stature, he exuded an approachability that made it easy to forget that most people have to tilt their heads up just to address him.
“I have friends working with Emirates from Argentina,” Del Potro told the two cabin crew — Kimberly and Margaret — who would be showing him around. “Carlos, Vanessa. There are, like, 300 people working here from Argentina.”
Except for the player, his agent, and the flight attendants, everyone was required to wear what could only be described as blue shower caps over their bare feet, socks or shoes. This was to preserve the sensitive carpeting below that contained fibre optics that lit it up in tiny, scattered sparks, creating an almost starry landscape across the floor.
Del Potro might have been new to such a level of mile-high extravagance, but he certainly wasn’t new to buckling in for long flights — 12, 14 hour trips from his hometown to tournaments around the world are standard now. Like any avid traveller, he has developed strategies to pass the time.
“First, I try to sleep,” he told tabloid! “If not, I watch some movies and series, then I play Candy Crush on my phone, or talk with my coaches or read a book, depends.” Had he managed a high level on Candy Crush, then? He chuckled. “No, I’m not good enough. But just to waste the time, it’s okay.”
Walking past the crew jump seats at the front of the private jet, Del Potro found himself standing in the lounge, consisting of six plush armchairs facing each other with tables in between, followed by two couches lining each side of the aircraft with a walkway and adjustable tables separating them.
“Wow, it’s amazing, huh?” he remarked, taking in the interior of the aircraft before ducking behind the next partition.
He was faced with a long row of “private suites” — 10 of them, to be exact. These are akin to first class seats, but bigger and more luxurious. In every suite, there is a 32 inch screen, a tablet and a selection of snacks, refreshments and toiletries. To help pass the time, there is a “writing kit” and a pocket of reading materials.
“Can I sit here?” he asked politely, though he probably needn’t have — he was there for the full tour, after all. The seat he took, just like all of the others on the aircraft, could extend into a bed. The generous legroom meant Del Potro didn’t have to squeeze himself to fit into a cramped space.
“The plane is amazing, I’ve never been on a plane like this,” he confessed later, during an on-camera interview. “There’s enough space for my two-metre body. I should travel all the time on these kinds of planes.”
And Dubai, he said, stood out as one of his favourite destinations to travel to.
“This one is one of my favourite tournaments and one of my favourite cities. Then I like a lot Miami, New York, and also I have good friends living there, which means [it feels] like being at home in those places.”
But does he struggle with jumping between such varied time zones?
“Sometimes I get early here to see the courts, to feel the weather difference, and also the time — we are seven hours back to Argentina. Sometimes it’s tough to sleep or keep awake during the day. I think I’ve been doing great this week. Training hard, and I will be ready for the tournament.”
And though it’s true that he usually travels for work, flying from tournament to tournament, he also revealed that he likes to do a bit of globe-trotting on his own time, if his schedule allows it.
“When I have free time, like at the end of the year, after the last tournament, I always travel with friends for 10, 15 days around the world — maybe close to Argentina, because it’s much easier for me,” he said. “But if not, it’s also nice for me to stay at home, relaxing, and stay very far away from the planes for a while.”
The deluxe “shower spa”, the last part of Del Potro’s tour, was particularly impressive to him. Situated at the back of the aircraft, with a golden faucet and a cylindrical glass stall, it even offered a temperature control so that the floor could be comfortably warmed up beneath your feet, a necessary feature considering the typical chill of airplanes.
But a private jet that accommodates up to 19 guests could only offer so much, in terms of space and amenities. After his brief static tour was up, Del Potro wandered back into the front lounge and took a seat on the couch where he was offered chocolate, dates and traditional “qahwa” coffee. He accepted each, albeit with increasing levels of wariness.
“It’s like Arabic chocolate, or what?” he asked once he had tasted the dates for the first time.
“They’re dates with almond inside,” Margaret explained.
“It was tasty,” he said afterwards, though he sounded a bit contemplative, as if he was trying to decide what he really thought of the fruit. “I like it. [Coffee was] strong — after that, you cannot sleep, I think.”
For a man who travels all over the world, however, Del Potro admitted he was more cautious than adventurous when it came to trying out new things — and especially new cuisines.
“I’m very classic. I only eat chicken or pasta and then Diet Coke, and that’s it,” he said. “I like to have the food what I know before, basically, before a tournament, in case my stomach resists the different food.”