It wasn't pretty, but it was a tournament win.
The 22-year-old Argentinian, Juan Martin Del Potro, defeated Janko Tipsarevic 6-4, 6-4 in the Delray Beach championships. It was his first tournament win since he, as the first man ever, took Nadal and Federer out back-to-back in a Slam tournament at the US Open 2009.
The win propels Del Potro back into the top 100 at No. 85, after being down at No. 484 less than a month ago. It is evident, that Del Potro is short of match play, and hasn't got his game completely together yet. His game is still a far cry from that second half of 2009, which saw him win his maiden Slam and warranted speculation whether we were witnessing the future No. 1.
However, what he still has, it the ability to win matches, even when not playing at his best.
He's clutch, simple as that.
Against Tipsarevic, he saved 10 of 11 breakpoints. He came back after being down 4-1 in the first set, playing in the hot daytime for the first time in two weeks.
He's been to the semi's or better in his last three tournaments. He's 13-4 this year. He's won the two tiebreaks he's been in this year, one of them 15-13. Moreover, a part from Florian Mayer (ranked 37 at the time of their meeting), he's only lost to fairly highly ranked people. Marcus Baghdatis (22) at the Australian Open, Fernando Verdasco (9) at San Jose and Andy Roddick (8) at Memphis. He hasn't been blown of the court in any of them.
Del Potro has scored wins over opponents such as Hewitt, Isner, Lopez and Fish. Not the best of the best, but certainly quality opponents. Put that together with the fact that he hasn't had odd loses to players outside the top-40, and it's clear Del Potro's has some momentum.
There's no doubt he can still improve in every department, including his serve, movement, and groundstrokes. His strokes are slightly more tentative, and not half as penetrating as they were in that US Open one and a half years ago.
Nevertheless, the big guy can still belt a forehand like few others, especially when he decides it's time to raise the stakes.
In the last weeks, he's been playing the smaller tournaments. Come March, he'll be in Miami and Indian Wells, the two American Masters tournaments.
While it would be a stretch to say he's the favorite in any of them, it certainly will be interesting to follow the 6'6" foot tall Argentinian, slug it out against the world elite.
These tournaments will tell us if Del Potro is back. Sure, he can beat a poorly playing Tipsarevic in the final of a 250 event, but can he challenge the likes of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray and Söderling?
I remain hopeful, but skeptical from what I've seen so far. His game is not yet back at top-five nor top-ten level. Nevertheless, few players would like to see the world's No. 85 next to their name in the draw. I wouldn't be surprised if he scores his first win against a top-ten player in the next month.
If he does continue his current pace of improvement, we might very well start counting him in the mix as early as the next Slam, which is the French Open, less than three months ahead.
The road is long, tough, and by no means straight. Nevertheless, Del Potro seems on track to regain his position at the top of the field. A position that seemed so natural to him prior to his wrist injury.
After struggling with injury, depression, and how to regain trust in his body and wrist over the past year, the early comeback success of the young Argentinian is well-deserved.
May he once again become a factor a the top of the men's game.