February 27, 2012

Back in Form

It seems to have been a good weekend for players that had something to prove. A shade or two off their best rankings, a couple champions made their return to the winners' circle on Sunday, and may have just reminded us all they're still forces to be reckoned with.

Juan Martin Del Potro has been working his way back to the sport's top echelon for some time and took titles last year in Delray Beach and Estoril. But it's been a while since he's been a threat to the top guys. Remember when he practically owned Rafael Nadal? On the way to his 2009 U.S. Open crown, the big Argentine went 3-0 against the one-time #1. He's 0-3 since then. DelPo did notch a couple victories over an ailing Robin Soderling early last year, but was largely ineffective against top-ten players that season.

Things seemed to have turned a corner in 2012, though. After beating world #7 Tomas Berdych on the way to the Rotterdam final, Del Potro seemed to have a renewed confidence. The fourth seed in Marseille, he was dealt a tough draw from the start, splitting sets with a re-invigorated Nikolay Davydenko in his opener before advancing on his opponent's retirement. He survived a close call against Richard Gasquet a match later, but scored an even bigger victory against top seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semis. In a match with forty-one aces -- the majority, somewhat surprisingly, coming from the Frenchman -- and a super-close second set tiebreak, things could have gone either way. But after nearly three hours, DelPo was able to close out the match and make his second straight final.

There he met a similarly resurgent Michael Llodra. Nearly in the top twenty less than a year ago, the Frenchman won no ATP-level matches after the U.S. Open in 2011. He pulled off an upset over Alexandr Dolgopolov in his Marseille second round and pulled off a major win against Janko Tipsarevic in the semis to make his first final in almost two years. His comeback ended quickly on Sunday, though as the Argentine won a more-than-solid ninety percent of his first serves and never allowed Llodra a chance to break. In his shortest match of the event, DelPo earned his tenth career title and reasserted himself as a powerful force against even the big guns.

Austrian Jurgen Melzer is less temporally removed from his career-high ranking, having peaked at #8 in the world just about a year ago. But after failing to defend points at Roland Garros or his trophy in Vienna, he started out 2012 outside the top thirty. A first round loss in Australia and an upset at the hands of Michael Berrer in Zagreb pushed him even further out of the spotlight.

Melzer was unseeded by the time he came to Memphis and found himself under the gun from the start. Down a set in his first two rounds, he needed third-set tiebreaks in both to advance. He scored the biggest on-paper upset of the tournament when he ousted big-serving American John Isner in the quarters, but upped his game even further Sunday when he met Milos Raonic, fresh off a win at the SAP Open in San Jose. The six-foot-five Canadian was playing his second straight final here, after losing last year on one of the most spectacular shots ever seen, and despite a middling fourth seed may have been the favorite even when Isner was still in contention.

But Melzer was on point in the championship match this year. After staying close to start, the veteran thirty year old broke in the eleventh game of the contest and served out the first set. Raonic wouldn't back down, though, and climbed to a 4-1 lead in the second before the Austrian fought back to even. The two battled to a tiebreak, but Melzer got the better of his opponent there too and, despite twenty-two aces and an eighty-plus first serve percentage from the world #32, closed out the match in less than two hours. The win halved the winner's ranking as of Monday's stats, bringing him back to #19 and reminding us he's a threat on more than just a doubles court.

Both these guys scored some milestone wins over the past week, and while there's still a ways to go before they regain their topmost form, their back-to-back upsets and victories should surely get them noticed again. And now that they're back on the radar, there are not many who will be able to rest easy.

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