February 27, 2011

The Drought Is Over

It's been a long slog back from injury for former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.

After making the fourth round of the Australian Open last year, he missed most of the season and couldn't grab a set when he returned in the fall. Though he finally began winning this year, it wasn't until he hit the hard courts of San Jose that we finally began seeing signs of his former self. Having lost all his points from Melbourne, the tall Argentine was ranked just inside the top five hundred, but powered through a tough draw, even taking out Lleyton Hewitt in the quarters before falling the next round. A week later in Memphis, DelPo took out last year's runner-up John Isner on his way to the semis for a second straight week. But this week in Delray Beach Juan Martin finally hit his stride. Facing one big server after another, he didn't drop a set against Kevin Anderson or Mardy Fish, and finally earned his first championship match since September, 2009.

There he faced an inspired Janko Tipsarevic. The talented Serb joined his country in their first Davis Cup win last December and was on the verge of defeating Fernando Verdasco in the second round in Melbourne. But though he's shown promise throughout his career, he hasn't won a title in his two final appearances, so you knew he'd be going for broke in Florida. He survived two challenges in the early rounds, but eventually got through a tough Ivan Dodig and a resurgent Kei Nishikori to play for the trophy. And despite his record and relative inexperience, you had to think he had a good shot at it.

Del Potro had played all his previous matches in the evening, under much cooler conditions, and finished his semi around eleven the previous night. He looked tired, physically and mentally, and moved without purpose most of Sunday -- it wasn't surprising when he found himself down a break early. But something switched on in the sixth game of the first set. Serving at 1-4, the six-foot-six found the talent that won him seven previous titles in two years. He won five games in a row to take the lead and broke again in the fifth game of the second set. Though he was outplayed for most of the match, he stayed ever so slightly tougher at the crucial moments and finally came away with the win -- his first since that breakthrough in New York over a year ago.

It kind makes you wonder just what 2010 would have looked like had Del Potro been a factor. Though the Argentine is far from playing at the top of his game, you got glimpses of that innate talent throughout today's final. Had be been in form last year, things might well have been vastly different now. DelPo had, after all, finally gotten the better of Roger Federer and had never lost to greats like Rafael Nadal and -- at that time -- Andy Roddick. And though it will surely be a while before he's back in that kind of shape, it does look like the tables are turning back in his favor.

And as they say, when it starts to rain, it really does pour.

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