Three weeks ago, it was a not unfathomable thought that Rafael Nadal might not make it to Indian Wells. The Spaniard was in the throes of his clay court comeback, playing three tournaments in a row in Vina del Mar, Sao Paolo and Acapulco, winning two of them, but confessing that he certainly felt the after-effects of being back on a tennis court. And travelling no small distances in between, too. And that was on clay, his beloved. Hard courts, his less-than-beloved, would be the true test of his physical rehabilitation.
But travel to Indian Wells he did. A shade over ten days later, he was flat on his back on cement, not clay. That it is a celebration that Nadal usually reserves for the Big Four is a measure of what it meant to him to succeed on the surface that tests him the most. Playing in jade green on St Patrick's Day, Nadal battled as Nadal battles best to defeat Juan Martin Del Potro in three tempestuous sets, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, and claim a record 22nd Masters 1000 title, one more than friend and foe Roger Federer.
Leaning casually on the "very heavy" trophy as he beamed up at the crowd, Nadal thanked them for keeping him going, and paid tribute to all those who have played such an important role in getting him back on his feet after his longest period in the injury wilderness yet.
It was also Nadal's 600th match win (out of 723 in total), his 53rd singles title, his 32nd Masters 1000 final, and, most tellingly, his first title on a hard court since winning Tokyo in 2010. Even more importantly, unlike in Tokyo, where the field is smaller and less competitive, everyone that is everyone was in Indian Wells, and Nadal had to beat Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych, and Del Potro, who had led 3-1 in the final set, to be the one left holding the trophy. It was a gigantic achievement.
As always, Nadal put it simply yet perfectly.
“Seriously,” he said, “it’s impossible to have better comeback, no? Happy for everything.”
“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,” he continued. ”Beating three top 10, three very important players, and win title like this is just something unbelievable for me."
Having taken the decision not to play in Miami this week and next, on doctors' advice, Nadal goes into the clay court swing with a 17-1 win-loss for the year, his best-ever start to the season. He is also second in the race for London at the end of the year. The big thing, of course, is whether he can stay healthy. But there's no doubt that men's tennis has been rejuvenated by his return. And it's a return that is not just about clay.
The re-emergence of Del Potro, meanwhile, and the discipline he showed to beat both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, and come very close to beating Nadal, is very exciting. It's been said before, but the big burly Argentine finally looks to be in the right nick to be winning Grand Slam titles again.
On the women's side of the draw, 2012's other Roland Garros singles champion was the last one standing, Maria Sharapova defeating somewhat surprising finalist Caroline Wozniacki, 6-2, 6-2. Sharapova had started the 10 days in Indian Wells in chirpy, chatty form, launching her confectionary brand Sugarpova in the desert, and looking very much like the businesswoman that she has become.
Her meatiest title since last year's French Open, Sharapova didn't drop a set en route to her 28th WTA title, and her 33 winners to Wozniacki's two told the tale of the final. But she revealed she had been focusing more on precision than power, paramount against a player like the Dane.
“I didn’t feel like I was hitting rockets out there,” she said. “I thought I was being aggressive, but I was doing the right things and being patient enough and looking for the right shot when I wanted to move in a little bit.
It’s a final. You have to come out with your best. You have to be ready to go.”
She certainly did that. Moving back up to world No.2, Sharapova has grabbed back a bit of the ground she had lost last year to Serena, Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska. Can she hang onto it? She seems to want to.
There were two more record-breakers at Indian Wells over the weekend. The Bryan brothers completed the career golden Masters Grand Slam. It's quite a mouthful, but it essentially means that the American twins have claimed all four Grand Slam doubles titles, the Olympic gold medal, and all nine ATP Masters 1000 titles. The identical duo beat Treat Huey and Jerzy Janowicz 6-3, 3-6, 10-6 for their fourth title of 2013 and a 20-2 win-loss record this year.
What's next? The Sony Open in Miami. No Nadal, no Federer, but Serena's back. The plots continue.