INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Rafael Nadal came into the BNP Paribas Open last week not knowing how his body would react in his first hard court tournament in almost a year. A week and a half on, he's into his first hard court final since the 2012 Australian Open after continuing his fantastic form here with a 6-4, 7-5 win over Tomas Berdych. On Sunday he'll meet the man who has upended the men's draw in the span of 24 hours, Juan Martin del Potro. The big-hitting Argentine came back from a set down to beat Andy Murray in the quarterfinals and returned today to do the same against No. 1 Novak Djokovic, overcoming a 0-3 deficit in the third set to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Now fess up: Who saw this final coming?
Definitely not Nadal. He couldn't stop smiling after making his first ATP Masters 1000 hard court final since Miami in 2011. "The things seem always almost impossible until the things are done," Nadal said after the match. The tournament has been a resounding success for him, especially after beating two Top 10 players in Roger Federer and Berdych in back-to-back matches on his least favorite surface. Nadal has a history of talking down his chances at tournaments but even he shrugged when asked whether he believed he could win the tournament. "I cannot still saying these kind of things after a lot of success that I had, but any opponent tomorrow will be a very difficult opponent," Nadal said. "Today I am just here, and for me is a present (gift) to be here."
"I don't have nothing to lose after seven months. I did much more than what I dreamed."
While there is little to lose for Nadal there is much to gain. He's going for his 600th career win on Sunday and, currently tied with Federer for the most ATP Masters 1000 titles at 21, a win would give him the most ATP Masters 1000 titles since 1990. A title would also boost him to No. 4 in the rankings on Monday ahead of David Ferrer.
But can he stop the buzzsaw that is Del Potro? The 2009 U.S. Open champion has had a solid but not spectacular start to 2013, with a surprising third round loss at the Australian Open and losses to Djokovic in Dubai and Gilles Simon in Marseille. He finds himself in his first BNP Paribas Open final on the strength of his forehand, backhand slice, and fight. He's hitting that forehand as good as he was back in 2009 when he won his one and only Slam, but it's his slice that has been causing opponents problems. Against Murray and Djokovic, Del Potro was able to use the shot effectively both as a defensive tactic and on offense, keeping the ball low to his opponents backhand until he could get a short ball to hit.
"I use it because my coach told me that, so thanks to him," Del Potro said after he beat Murray.
"I don't know if I'm going to use tomorrow against Rafa because he's lefty and he move really, really fast in the baseline. But what I know about him is [I need to] play more aggressive than today, trying to make a few winners with my forehands, coming a lot to the net, and I need to serve well also."
Del Potro hasn't beaten Nadal since 2009 (the Spaniard leads their head-to-head 7-3) but his three wins did come on hard courts on the biggest of stages. During his stellar 2009 season, Del Potro reeled off three straight wins over Nadal in Miami, Montreal, and at the U.S. Open and who knows if that run would have continued if he hadn't suffered a wrist injury that knocked him out of the game for much of 2010. He's slowly worked his way back since then and much like Nadal's knees questions continue to plague Del Potro as to the status of his wrist. "I'm okay. I'm getting closer to be 100%," he said this week.
Recovery will be key for Del Potro's chances in the final. He spent five hours and 22 minutes on court beating Murray and Djokovic, will be playing his third match in three days in near-100 degree heat, while Nadal only took three hours and seven minutes to get through Federer and Berdych and benefitted from a day off in between. Surprisingly, it is only Del Potro's second ATP Masters 1000 final of his career. As for the game plan against Nadal, Del Potro could only offer a sheepish smile.
"Everything perfect." Alrighty then. That sounds simple enough. Prediction: Nadal in three sets.