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Beyond the Baseline

Rafael Nadal silences doubters, rallies to win Indian Wells title

(Frederic J. Brown/Getty) Rafael Nadal won his record 22nd ATP Masters title and his 600th career match. (Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Rafael Nadal capped his four-tournament comeback from injury by winning his first hard-court title since 2010, beating Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the final of the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday. Nadal's 600th career victory gave him a record 22 ATP Masters 1000 titles, one more than Roger Federer.

Here are some thoughts on Nadal's win:

Nadal silences all doubt: "How are your knees?" "How is your confidence?" "How are you adjusting to the game after being away from seven months?" All these questions that dogged Nadal for the last six weeks since he returned seem completely ridiculous now. It's simply an incredible feat for Nadal to beat the likes of a streaking Ernests Gulbis, Federer, Tomas Berdych and Del Potro to win his first hard-court tournament in almost a year. You could tell just how much it meant to him when he fell to his back on match point and celebrated the victory as if he were at Roland Garros.

"I don't have a lot of doubts that if I am healthy and if I am right I have a chance to win on these surfaces," Nadal said. "Beating three top 10, three very important players, and win title like this is just something unbelievable for me.

"Seriously," he said, "it's impossible to have better comeback, no? Happy for everything."

All week Nadal has been hesitant to downplay his abilities on hard courts. He has brushed aside questions that imply hard court is his weakest surface. That speaks perhaps to his time spent over the last seven months reassessing his career and his accomplishments. It's actually nice to hear Nadal come out and essentially say, "You know what? I'm a pretty darn good hard-court player."

"[I]f we pull out all my clay-court titles and just analyze my career outside of clay, I had a much better career that I ever dreamed," Nadal told reporters early in the tournament.

After winning his first hard-court final since 2010 (he had since lost in six straight hard-court finals), Nadal said he doesn't doubt his prowess on the surface.

"When last year you are 4-2 in the fifth of Australian Open 30-15, when you are here losing in semifinals, when you are playing semifinals of Miami, you are there," he said. "You are in the semifinals and you are playing finals. Why you cannot win titles? That's the real thing, because to be in that semifinal you have to win against players who are probably the same level that players who you will meet in the final, no?

"So it's something that I don't have doubts, but after [that] you have to win, and I didn't for the last couple of years. My results on hard I think were great the last couple of years, but remain [winning] the title, and now I did.  That makes emotional an week for me. Very important victory for me, winning, like I say before, against the best players of the world on a surface that is good for them."

Del Potro came away impressed.

"I think he deserve to win the tournament," the Argentine said. "He beat very good players here at Indian Wells. What I say the days before, he's going to be fighting for the first position very soon."

"First position" may be a way's away. Though the win will put Nadal ahead of David Ferrer at No. 4 on Monday, he'll likely drop back down to No. 5 after skipping the next week's Sony Open in Miami, at which he was a defending semifinalist. Unless Ferrer has a disastrous next few months on clay, it's likely that Nadal will go into the French Open ranked No. 5.

The difference in that one ranking spot is huge. No. 4 means Nadal won't have to face one of the top four men as early as the quarterfinals at the French Open. No. 5 means he could have a tournament like Indian Wells, where he played Federer before the semifinal round for the first time in 10 years. It will be a race to watch during the European clay swing.

A triumphant comeback: Nadal's 2013 tally: four tournaments, four finals and three titles, the biggest of which came at an ATP Masters 1000 with all the top 10 players. Sure, winning that title in Chile (he lost in the final to Horacio Zeballos) would have been nice, but this is the best return Nadal could have hoped for.

"Watching him in this level, he's playing really well," Del Potro said. "He already won three tournaments. He's winning more than everyone after six, seven months [away]."

Del Potro knows better than most how difficult it is to come back from a debilitating injury. After winning the 2009 U.S. Open, he suffered a right wrist injury that required surgery and sidelined him for most of the 2010 season. He spent the next year and half trying to regain his form and seems to have finally gotten on track in the last eight months. Del Potro said only Nadal could return to this top five level so quickly.

"I don't know how surprised I am because Rafa can do everything," Del Potro said. "Not many players can do that."

Del Potro added: "First, you have to lose the scare about your problem and then take matches to feel good. You can see the matches in Viña [del Mar] from Rafa and see the difference between them and now is like another player. That takes time to change or to improve. But he made it so quick, so fast."

Let's do this again, Delpo: Nadal will deservedly get the headlines, but let's take the time to welcome Del Potro back into the fold. He's had some great one-off wins over the last year, most notably over Novak Djokovic at the London Olympics and Federer at the end of last year. But to see him slowly work his way through the tournament and then play three high-quality matches to beat Andy Murray and Djokovic and go up a set and a break on Nadal in the final was a good sign for men's tennis.

As great as Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal have been over the years, the need for the Nos. 5-8 players to step up to the challenge and not concede their greatness is necessary. In his comeback wins over Murray and Djokovic, Del Potro showed better tactical awareness in his use of his slice and hit his forehand as well as he was in 2009.

This was a great tournament for Del Potro and he'll head to Miami with tremendous confidence. After beating Murray and Djokovic, Del Potro said his next step is simple.

"Beat Nadal, beat Federer," he said, laughing. "Try to beat all of them."
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