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Steve Flink: Nadal takes Indian Wells with grit and style

3/18/2013 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Irrefutably, the 2013 BNP Paribas Open was one of those tournaments that will long live in our hearts, minds and imaginations. Maria Sharapova claimed the women’s singles crown for the second time, and now this enduring champion has captured at least one title on the WTA Tour for no fewer than eleven seasons in a row. Juan Martin Del Potro celebrated his talent prodigiously on the same California hard courts at Indian Wells, upending a pair of highly accomplished men who have clashed in the last two Grand Slam tournament finals, defeating both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic for a place in the championship match. The Latvian Ernests Gulbis played dazzling tennis before his round of 16 departure. Meanwhile, Caroline Wozniacki moved past her recent string of disappointments to reach the final, gaining a measure of confidence in the process.

But, in the end, after a scintillating stretch of first class tennis, after so much high drama, it was the redoubtable Rafael Nadal who stepped forward to claim the crown. Nadal came to Indian Wells simply hoping to play as many hard court matches as possible, not expecting anything out of the ordinary. But this singularly resolute Spaniard emerged with one of the most gratifying tournament victories of his career, overcoming three of the top seven players in the sport, toppling Del Potro in a gripping, pendulum swinging, final round contest that could have gone either way.

Remember: Nadal was away from competitive tennis for seven months before returning in Vina del Mar Chile, suffering a final round loss in that ATP World Tour 250 clay court event against the unheralded left-hander Horacio Zeballos. A week later, he was victorious at the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo, eclipsing old rival David Nalbandian in another final at the 250 level. He took a week off, and then went to Acapulco, moving up to the ATP World Tour 500 level, crushing countryman David Ferrer 6-0, 6-2 in the final there. Winning two out of the three clay court tournaments on his comeback swing was impressive, and his performance against Ferrer was extraordinary.

And yet, remember: heading into Indian Wells for a prestigious ATP World Tour 1000 event, Nadal had not played a hard court tournament for nearly a year. His last appearance on that surface was in Miami last spring. His knee remained a primary concern. His state of mind was cautiously optimistic, but no more than that. His hope was to make a reasonably good showing, but replicating his 2007 and 2009 tournament triumphs on the California stage seemed out of the question. But this is an indefatigable fellow, a competitor like no other in the history of his profession, a warrior from his toes to the top of his head. Remember: tennis has seldom if ever seen a player quite so imposing. And so, improbably and admirably, despite his long absence from this level of the game, Nadal found himself confronting Del Potro Sunday afternoon on the last day in the dessert, against very long odds.

Although the Spaniard held a 7-3 career head-to-head edge over the Argentine—including triumphs in their last three meetings—the fact remained that Del Potro was brimming with confidence after his unexpected wins over Murray and Djokovic. In the back of both men’s minds was Del Potro’s astonishingly one-sided, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Nadal on hard courts in the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open, a day before he halted Roger Federer in five sets to secure the title. Both players knew precisely what was at stake. For Nadal, this was a chance to garner a record-breaking 22nd Masters 1000 championship, and for Del Potro it was an opportunity to put his name for the first time on one of those coveted trophies.

At the outset, Nadal was masterfully picking Del Potro apart from the baseline. He knew full well that the 6’6” Argentine had to be depleted by his exhausting skirmishes with Murray and Djokovic; both matches lasted nearly three hours. Del Potro had picked the right times to unload off his crackling forehand in those duels. It is one of the single biggest and best shots in the game of tennis. But it was surprising how frequently he went to the backhand slice in those two victories, buying time until he could get a forehand to wallop inside-out. He seldom drove the backhand with any authority, and kept resorting to the slice.

Nadal was clearly ready to test Del Potro off the backhand comprehensively, and at the outset of the Indian Wells final he did just that. Nadal probed his adversary’s backhand skillfully and persistently, going down the line off the backhand regularly, sending his forehand crosscourt with that unique brand of topspin. Del Potro did not slice off his backhand much, but he made his share of errors and did no damage with his two-handed drive crosscourt. Nadal was moving Del Potro side to side, giving the big man few chances to unload off the forehand. By peppering the Del Potro backhand, Nadal frequently opened up the court for lethal down the line and inside out forehand winners.

The Spaniard was somewhat apprehensive at the start, but he held from deuce in the opening game, and broke the Argentine in a three deuce game to move ahead 2-0. Nadal was rolling, moving to 3-0, reaching 15-40 in the following game on a Del Potro double fault. With a break for the Spaniard here, the set would have been settled. But Del Potro aced Nadal at 128 MPH down the T, then coaxed an error from the Spaniard with a bristling inside-out forehand. A more confident Nadal would have made that shot. Two more scorching forehands lifted Del Potro back to 1-3.

Nevertheless, Nadal moved to 40-30 in the fifth game, a point away from a comfortable and still commanding 4-1 lead. But Del Potro was fortunate. A cramped backhand return hit accidentally at a high trajectory looked certain to land out, but the shot fell in. Nadal netted an overhead taken on the bounce. At break point, Del Potro ran around his backhand and made a spectacular inside-out forehand return winner that landed inside the service line and darted away from a helpless Nadal. In the space of seven minutes, the complexion of the match had been altered immeasurably.

Gone was Nadal’s backcourt mastery and tactical acuity. He became surprisingly flustered for a while, going for winners that were beyond his grasp, inexplicably abandoning his original gameplan of working over the vulnerable backhand side of his opponent. For quite a while, Nadal was pressing, beating himself to a large extent, something the Spaniard rarely allows to happen. Revitalized, Del Potro soared to another level. He held easily for 3-3 before Nadal briefly found his range again to hold at love for 4-3. But that game did little to reignite Nadal. Del Potro held at 15 with an ace down the T for 4-4, broke a discombobulated Nadal at 15 for 5-4, and held confidently at 30 for the set. Del Potro had swept 12 of the last 16 points to seal the set with growing assurance and growing power off the forehand, while Nadal seemed to forget what had enabled him to move out in front.

The pattern continued. Nadal committed three unforced errors off the forehand in the opening game of the second set, and was broken at l5. Del Potro saved a break point with a trademark inside-out forehand winner off a short return from Nadal, and held on for 2-0. The Argentine had won eight of nine games after his inauspicious start. He was demolishing every short ball that came his way, dictating off the forehand, exploiting Nadal’s evaporating emotional energy. Del Potro moved on to a 3-1 second set lead with another ace down the T at 40-15.

And then, as he so often does when his back is to the wall, just in the nick of time, Nadal found another gear, and established an ideal balance between control and aggression. He held at 15 for 2-3 with three winners off the forehand in that game. With Del Potro serving at 3-2, 30-40, Nadal sent a first serve return back with excellent depth down the middle, drawing an error from the Argentine. It was 3-3. The momentum had shifted considerably from one player to the other. Nadal had regained his bearings, and carried himself once more like a man who believed he was going to win. He held at 15 for 4-3, releasing two service winners, one winner off the backhand and another off the forehand. Clearly, Del Potro was shaken. He saved one break point in the eighth game, only to double point on the following point. Nadal pounced, jumping all over a short ball for an inside-out forehand winner. He had the break for 5-3, and then held at love for the set, opening the ninth game with an ace out wide to the forehand in the deuce court, releasing another ace out wide in the ad court at 40-0 to sweep a fifth game in a row.

Just like that, it was one set all. Nadal was surging. The opening game of the final set went to deuce four times. Thrice, Del Potro was down break point, but he blasted winners mightily off his forehand to save them all. He held on gamely for 1-0, but Nadal was much stronger physically and the tougher man mentally. Nadal held at love with another ace out wide for 1-1 and then broke at 15 with an immaculately struck forehand down the line winner in the third game. Nadal held on at 30 for 3-1, keeping Del Potro at bay by pummeling away at the backhand flank of a deflated opponent. But Del Potro was still not ceding much ground. He held at love for 2-3 before Nadal answered with a love game of his own. Both men held easily until Del Potro served to stay in the contest at 3-5. He opened the ninth game with a double fault and fell behind 0-40, triple match point.

And yet, Del Potro played on admirably through his fatigue. He saved the first match point with a service winner down the T, erased the second with a big forehand that drew a forehand mistake from a rushed Nadal, and cancelled a third with a terrific swing volley that was too much for Nadal to handle. Del Potro held on courageously for 4-5, forcing the Spaniard to think about his missed opportunities at the changeover. But Nadal was unflagging, a champion refusing to look back as he set his sights on serving out the match for the title.

At 5-4, 15-0, Nadal made a surprising unforced error off the forehand, but he remedied the situation swiftly, following an inside-out forehand to the net, closing in for a forehand volley winner crosscourt. At 30-15, he clipped the baseline with a forehand and moved in to deposit an easy shot into the open court. Del Potro had stopped to challenge the call on the baseline, which went Nadal’s way. At match point for the fourth time, Nadal drove an inside-in forehand to the Del Potro backhand, and elicited the error. Nadal had won deservedly in the end, prevailing 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, recording his 600th career match win in the process.  

He had tightened up his game tremendously, and backed up his serve remarkably well in the final set, winning 20 of 23 points on his delivery. Thus the Spaniard secured a 53rd career tournament victory. He has taken 38 of those championships on his beloved clay, and has recorded three tournament triumphs on grass, including two at Wimbledon. His Indian Wells win was his eleventh tournament win on hard courts and his first on that surface since Tokyo in 2010. Moreover, Nadal has now won at least one singles title on the ATP World Tour for ten consecutive seasons. Strangely, this was the first time since his 2006, four set comeback victory against Federer in the French Open final that Nadal has rallied from a set down to win a final. Finally, he has now secured three tournaments in a row, recording 14 straight match wins in the process.

To be sure, it is surprising to a degree that Nadal has not secured more titles on hard courts, but he has taken two majors on that surface (one U.S. and one Australian Open), and winning Indian Wells three times is no mean feat. Moreover, he has made it to 14 other finals on the hard courts. Plainly, Nadal can win on any surface.

But I digress. In the semifinals of Indian Wells this time around, Nadal took on Tomas Berdych, now as pure a striker of the tennis ball as there is in the business. Berdych had been in the finals of his previous two tournaments in Marseilles and Dubai, and he rolled into the penultimate round at Indian Wells without difficulty. Many believed he might be ready to upend Nadal at this early stage in the Spaniard’s comeback. But history was unquestionably in Nadal’s favor. Not only had he beaten Berdych in 12 of their 15 career meetings, but the Spaniard had swept eleven matches in a row from the big fellow and had dropped only two sets in those appointments.

Nadal played perhaps his finest tennis of the week against a beleaguered Berdych. At 3-3 in the opening set, he broke the 6’5” man from the Czech Republic. Nadal served for the first set at 5-4 and was called for a time violation at 15-30. But he did not let that get in his way, making a backhand passing shot winner on the next point, and holding at 30 for the set. Berdych gradually gained the upper hand for a while in the second set, breaking Nadal for 5-3 on a jittery double fault from the Spaniard. But Nadal—boosted by a pair of forehand winners and poor serving from Berdych—broke back at 15 for 4-5, held at 15 for 5-5 and then broke Berdych again in the eleventh game as the 27-year-old bungled an overhead from very close to the net.

Serving for the match, an apprehensive Nadal fought off three break points with timely clutch serving, closing out the match 6-4, 7-5. In fact, Nadal beefed up his first serve at important moments against both Berdych and Del Potro; he has not served that big (in the range of 121 to 125 MPH) with such a full commitment since the 2010 U.S. Open. On top of that, his mixture of serving into the body and going out wide in both the deuce and ad courts was exemplary.

In the quarterfinals, Nadal and old rival Roger Federer met for the 29th time in their illustrious careers, and for the first time since Federer surprised Nadal in the semifinals at Indian Wells a year ago.  Nadal took apart Federer 6-4, 6-2 under the lights on the slow, gritty hard courts to lift his record to 19-10 over the Swiss. His crosscourt backhand was humming in that showdown as he caught the Swiss off guard with some thundering winners. The Nadal forehand was typically burdensome for Federer, who was coaxed into too many mistakes on his high backhand. Nadal also served with impressive authority, directing his delivery with customary confidence to his rival’s backhand to win more than his share of free points.

To be sure, Federer was ailing. He had hurt his back during his third round win over Ivan Dodig, and it had been apparent during his round of 16 win over Stan Wawrinka that the back remained a problem. Federer narrowly held back Wawrinka 6-3, 6-7, 7-5 after serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set. At times against Nadal, Federer’s movement (especially running for the wide forehand) seemed impaired, and he found himself struggling in almost every service game as his first serve lacked the usual pop. But on the slow court in fine conditions, Nadal would almost surely have beaten Federer even if the Swiss had been feeling on top of the world. Too many critics overemphasized Federer’s physical state and did not give Nadal the credit he merited.

Nadal’s depth on his second serve returns was excellent, and he was the vastly superior player from the backcourt. Federer held from deuce in the opening game, rallied from 0-30 in the third game, and then saved a break point in the fifth game. That took the Swiss to 3-2. But Nadal was cruising through his service games. He held at love for 3-3, broke Federer in the seventh game with a sparkling crosscourt backhand passing shot winner and held easily for 5-3. Federer saved two set points in the ninth game and wiped away a third in the tenth, but Nadal sealed the set with a familiar and telling pattern, sending his sliced first serve wide to the backhand to provoke a backhand return error from the Swiss.

Federer knew he could not stay with Nadal, who sprinted to a two service break lead at 3-0 in the second set. Although Federer took some chances and became more aggressive on his returns to close the gap to 3-2—achieving his only service break of the match in the fourth game—Nadal held from 15-30 in the sixth game and never looked back. Federer was essentially resigned to defeat.

Perhaps the moment of essential truth for Nadal was his round of 16 battle with Gulbis. In four previous showdowns against the Latvian, Nadal had dropped a set on three occasions. In his evening duel with Gulbis in the dessert, Nadal was hard pressed from the beginning. Gulbis was surging with confidence after winning Delray Beach and qualifying for Indian Wells. When he took on Nadal, he was on a 13 match winning streak, and it was the 14th match in 19 days for the 24-year-old who has such diversified talent, featuring stunning power and finesse. Gulbis stood toe to toe with Nadal in some fierce rallies all through the first set, until the Spaniard cracked in the tenth game. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, Nadal made consecutive unforced errors to drop the opening set.

Nadal rallied from 2-3 down on serve to capture the second set, and then found himself down 4-5 in the third and final set, serving at deuce. Gulbis laced one of his customary finely struck backhands down the line, followed it in, and Nadal had to make a difficult sliced backhand pass down the line. His shot grazed the net cord slightly, but Gulbis made a respectable drop volley down the line. At that crucial juncture, Nadal scampered forward and rolled a backhand passing shot winner down the line. He held on for 5-5, broke in the following game and then raced to 40-0 at 6-5. After squandering two match points with a wild forehand error and a double fault revealing his anxiety, Nadal gathered himself and moved from defense to offense, opening up the court with a forehand down the line, then driving a forehand crosscourt confidently into the clear for a match concluding winner. Nadal won 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 over an inspired adversary who pushed him to the hilt. That match may well prove to be a critical turning point in his 2013 campaign.

Meanwhile, Del Potro took on Murray at the best possible time as the British standout played his first tournament since losing in the final of the Australian Open to Djokovic. Both men served superbly in the opening set before Murray took the set in a tie-break. At 5-4 in that sequence, Murray prevailed in a bruising 43 stroke baseline exchange, and he won the tie-break 7-5. Having been beaten only once in six previous collisions with Del Potro, Murray must have been confident. But Del Potro raced to a 3-0 second set lead, winning 12 of 14 points in that span. Soon he was at one set all. Murray had a break point for 2-0 in the third, and he lofted a high return that could have been hard for Del Potro to handle. The big Argentine calmly put away an overhead, and never looked back. He patiently waited for his openings against Murray, and pulled away to win 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1.

When Del Potro faced Djokovic in the semifinals, he was taking on another key rival who had ousted him with regularity as of late. Altogether, Djokovic held an 8-2 lead over Del Potro, and he had taken four in a row from the Argentine since losing their bronze medal match at last summer’s Olympic Games in London. Djokovic won the first set this time around. After winning the first set, he had prevailed in 194 of his last 198 matches. Following that first set, Del Potro called for the trainer to fix the taping on his foot. Play was delayed about six minutes. Djokovic seemed distracted thereafter, losing his serve at the start of the second set, breaking back, then losing serve again. He lost his serve a third time to go down 5-2, took the next two games, but could not salvage a set he had played unevenly.

In the final set, however, Djokovic was bearing down hard, and looking at last like the best player in the world. He broke Del Potro in the second game and moved to 3-0. But a fading Del Potro found new life. He made it back to 3-3 and nearly broke Djokovic again in the seventh game. At 4-4, Djokovic saved a break point, reached game point, but Del Potro’s ferocity off the forehand hurried Djokovic into a mistake. Del Potro broke and then went to 40-30 at 5-4. He collected himself, and aced Djokovic out wide to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. There has been no better moment than that for Del Potro across the past year. Djokovic had won 22 straight matches since last autumn, and had not been beaten in 2013.

As for Sharapova, she peaked for the final against Wozniacki. Poor Caroline never really had a chance in this skirmish. Sharapova broke the Dane in the opening game at love, held at 15 in the second game, and barreled through that first set unhesitatingly. Serving for the set at 5-2, Sharapova trailed 15-40, but consecutive backhand winners lifted the Russian back to deuce. She then served an ace, followed by a scintillating forehand down the line winner. Set to Sharapova, 6-2. Wozniacki served a double fault at break point down in the opening game of the second set, and the die was cast. Sharapova swept 16 of 18 points on serve in the second set. She was never broken in the match. She blasted 33 winners while Wozniacki produced only two. The 2006 Indian Wells victor was an entirely worthy winner of her second singles crown on that court.

And so, of course, was Nadal a worthy victor. The feeling grows that the Spaniard is set up now for a stirring stretch ahead. He has wisely pulled out of Miami so he can rest for a while before returning to the clay in Monte Carlo, where he will be seeking a ninth consecutive triumph at a tournament he has lost only once—way back in 2003 against clay court stalwart Guillermo Coria in the round of 16 when Nadal was only 16. It may well be that his highly unexpected triumph at Indian Wells will lead Nadal into an outstanding clay court campaign, on through Wimbledon and across the hard court summer. There is no more enterprising tennis player on the planet. The feeling grows that he may be moving toward one of the most rewarding seasons of his sterling career.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.