Del Potro's return adds new dynamic

Updated: January 19, 2011, 9:40 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha |

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Juan Martin del Potro is back.

The 2009 U.S. Open champion, on the mend from a wrist injury, beat Israeli Dudi Sela in a battle of tall and small for his first win at a major in 12 months.

Del Potro highlights Day 4 at the Australian Open, facing Marcos Baghdatis in what could be yet another thriller in Melbourne.

Men's match to watch: Juan Martin del Potro versus (21) Marcos Baghdatis

Big players win big points, and del Potro did just that against Sela on Tuesday, saving five set points in the first set of a 7-6 (13), 6-4, 6-4 victory.

He hit 19 aces, showing off one of the most potent serves in the men's game, and ripped his patented forehand. Tempering the brilliance, del Potro also shanked more than a few balls, missing outside the tram lines at times.

"Some balls I played I hit very, very far, and sometimes not," del Potro told reporters. "I need time to play harder and stronger."

Del Potro didn't get the chance in 2010. After losing to Marin Cilic, who possesses a similar game, in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the soft-spoken 22-year-old took an extended break due to the wrist. He was hoping rehab would do the trick, but when that didn't work, he underwent surgery in May in Minnesota.

Desire waned, knowing a return was far from imminent.

"After the operation it was tough for him to be motivated because he was feeling bad," said Ugo Colombini, del Potro's Italian agent. "He knew most of the season was gone. He couldn't do what he loved to do the best, to perform and play. It was very tough for him."

Another setback came in the fall. Del Potro lost his comeback match in Bangkok and suffered another loss in Tokyo. Instead of continuing to compete and pile up the matches, no matter the result, he shut it down.

"The wrist was still bothering him a bit, which was normal, so he felt like if he couldn't give 100 percent yet, he's not the kind of guy who plays and is just happy to be in the quarterfinals," Colombini added.

Del Potro made his 2011 debut in Sydney, winning a round, and was thrilled to be back among his colleagues. His former top-10 peers -- del Potro is ranked 236th, for the time being -- kept in contact, wishing him well.

"It was important," del Potro said.

Don't expect del Potro to re-enter the top 10 in the coming weeks. But it's likely a matter of when, not if.

His most pressing concern is Baghdatis, no stranger to injuries himself. Baghdatis loves Melbourne, having surprisingly reached the final in 2006, and is fitter than ever. Frequently mentioned as being overweight -- well, for a tennis player -- he looked positively svelte in a tracksuit Tuesday. Maybe the Cypriot and Mardy Fish can compare notes.

Unfortunately for Baghdatis, he was forced to pull out of Sydney with a groin injury as the defending champion and needed five sets to dispose of a Slovenian qualifier, Grega Zemlja, in the first round.

Prediction: Del Potro in four

Women's match to watch: Vera Zvonareva (2) versus Bojana Jovanovski

Imagine the fun Bojana Jovanovski has on New Year's Eve. As a bonus, it's also her birthday.

Jovanovski, from the now tennis hotbed of Serbia, didn't have reason to celebrate for most of the 2010 tennis season. Frustrated that her play in practice wasn't carrying over to matches -- the 19-year-old either couldn't qualify for events or was getting knocked out in the first round of main draws -- she contemplated not participating in Beijing.

She eventually decided to give it a go, and it turned out to be the right move. Jovanovski qualified and got to the third round, notching her first top-10 win in the process, ironically against countrywoman Jelena Jankovic. That was the spark.

Her ranking has ascended from 189th to a career-high 58th. Last week in Sydney, Jovanovski recorded six wins, over the likes of Sorana Cirstea, Kaia Kanepi, Aravane Rezai and Flavia Pennetta. Only eventual champion Li Na stopped Jovanovski and her well-disguised forehand.

As Vera Zvonareva's tears have diminished, the versatile Russian has become more successful. No coincidence. She's bidding to reach a third consecutive Grand Slam final. Her build up for Melbourne wasn't great, though.

"We try to prepare ourselves the best we can for the first Grand Slam," she told reporters. "But I think for all the players it's not always easy to play your best tennis in the first matches."

More hope, then, for the underdog.

Prediction: Zvonareva in three

Five-set lock: John Isner (20) versus Radek Stepanek

John Isner didn't know what section of the draw he was in. Told he could meet Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, he offered a disappointed grin.

But Isner knows he can ill afford to look that far ahead, because Radek Stepanek is a wily, tricky character who can upset anyone -- as he's proved. Stepanek's low ranking of 66th is courtesy of a knee injury and mono, both surfacing last year.

He reached the semifinals in Brisbane this month and downed Isner 6-3, 6-2 in Nottingham three years ago.

"That's a very difficult draw," said Isner, targeting a Grand Slam quarterfinal this season. "It's going to be a war. He killed me on grass. He's on his game. I'm going to have to play really well."

He will.

Prediction: Isner

Upset special: Bernard Tomic versus Feliciano Lopez (31)

Bernard Tomic can play. Assuming he gets his head straight -- and adds some muscle to his lanky 18-year-old frame -- wonderful things should result.

Now the Aussie hope on the men's side after the exit of Lleyton Hewitt, Tomic will have his chances on a slow hard court against the brooding, unpredictable Feliciano Lopez. Tomic upset Frenchman Jeremy Chardy to reach the second round for the third straight season.

He extended eventual semifinalist Cilic to five sets last year.

Prediction: Tomic in four

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for