<
>

Stellar return for del Potro, reality sets in for Fritz

In what is typically a slow month on tour, a lot of intriguing storylines have developed during the past week, starting with Juan Martin del Potro's return to the court for the first time in 11 months.

Tuesday night he easily beat American Denis Kudla 6-1, 6-4 to reach the second round in Delray Beach, Florida.

Del Potro has played just 15 matches since the beginning of 2014 and now finds his ranking down to 1,041. But the 2009 US Open champ showed his forehand is still one of the biggest weapons in the game.

Here's what else was on our writers' minds this past week on the tennis circuit:

Fritz still a work in progress

Carl Bialik, FiveThirtyEight.com: Last week, Taylor Fritz reached the final of the ATP World Tour event in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lost respectably to No. 7 Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-4. Remarkably, Fritz reached his first ATP final in his third tour-level event.

However, in Delray Beach, Fritz's run ended after one match, where he was a 6-3, 6-3 loser against Tim Smyczek on Tuesday. Fritz won only 26 percent of his second-serve return points, nearly 30 percent fewer than his opponent.

As Delray Beach showed us, Americans shouldn't count on their new tennis savior before he has fully arrived. He has plenty of competition from other promising teens, many of them Americans. His return game remains weak enough that he'll have to play many close matches, as he did in Memphis, which had a comparatively weak field.

Murray will be ready for Davis Cup

Nicolas Atkin, ESPN UK: Andy Murray will play for Great Britain in the Davis Cup next month despite the birth of his daughter. Murray started training this week, a representative of the world No. 2 confirmed to ESPN.

The Scot has not played since losing the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic at the end of January, with wife Kim giving birth to a baby girl a week later.

Murray will continue to take a break from competitive tennis for the rest of February before returning for the first-round tie against Japan.

Having secured their first Davis Cup title since 1936, Britain will begin its defense at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, England, from March 4-6.

Thiem showing his huge upside

Diego Zorrilla, ESPN Deportes: Dominic Thiem began this week where he left off last week, winning his opening-round match at the Rio Open on Tuesday.

The Austrian grabbed his fourth career title last week at the Argentina Open, but it was who he beat along the way that is of perhaps greater consequence than the trophy itself. Thiem stunned Rafael Nadal 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (4) in the semifinals. Keep in mind, this was a tournament played on clay.

As Thiem said after that match, "It was the most important victory in my career."

Thiem became a fan favorite early in the tournament, when he survived a match point against Gastao Elias of Portugal in the second round.

Argentine tennis fans recognized Thiem's class, his exquisite one-handed backhand and his explosive forehand. And the message at the Guillermo Vilas on the court for the trophy presentation was loud and clear: "You will always be welcome, and we'll be waiting for you in 2017."

Thiem takes on Diego Schwartzman in Rio on Wednesday.


Who's trending high and low

Jankovic

Jelena Jankovic: She likely didn't aspire to start the season the way she has, but Jankovic, a former world No. 1, came away with the biggest win of her season Tuesday in Dubai. The Serb beat Belinda Bencic in a grueling three-setter. Jankovic attributed the win to her renewed fighting spirit, and afterward quipped that the 12-year age gap between her and Bencic gave her the veteran advantage.


Nadal

Rafael Nadal: Coming off a shocking opening-round loss at the Australian Open, Nadal fell short at the Argentine Open last week, falling to Dominik Thiem in three sets. It has to be extra discouraging for Nadal, who held a match point before succumbing on his beloved red clay. Afterward, Nadal said he struggled with the 90 degree heat.