Two humble, soft-spoken players of the men's tour entered the stadium at Indian Wells this afternoon to contest the title.
Had you been located outside the stadium during their entire battle, it was anything but quiet, sounding like the Civil War had broken out again with Indian Wells, Calif., as the first battleground.
When the cannon fire from these two hard-hitting players died down and the smoke finally cleared, there was one man left standing, and that was Rafael Nadal. He overcame Juan Martin del Potro, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in a match filled with roller coaster-like momentum changes, fierce groundstrokes and excellent movement from both players.
What transpired on court today in Indian Wells was as exciting as any final in recent memory.
There were times that each player looked as if he might ease to a straight-sets victory, and that was within the same two sets!
The reason for this was some amazing streaks in a match that saw Nadal win the first three games and look very much like the day would be his. Then, del Potro reeled off the next of nine of eleven games, making the opposite result seem equally, if not more, likely.
This was followed by yet another momentum change, in which Nadal won eight of nine games and plucked the second set from Delpo's grasp to tie the match at one set apiece and then some.
Measuring up at far different vertical heights, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro produced what could only be described as rifle-shot sounding groundstrokes during early play. They had each brought their considerable arsenals of strength and movement, and they were showing them off in the form of extremely hard-hitting rallies.
It was clear from the first ball why it was these two players meeting each other in the final at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, as opposed to the top four-ranked players in the world.
In this tournament, both Nadal and del Potro had risen up like a Phoenix from the ashes to improve on their former selves.
Nadal, having returned from a recent break from tour due to a knee injury seemed to be striking the ball with more authority and looking to shorten points for the sake of his body. Having punished the ball in the quarterfinals and semifinals against Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, Delpo seemed just as eager to strike with equal ferocity.
Those still wondering where the rest of the Big Four were during this hard-court final most likely bypassed this concern quickly to focus on the fireworks exploding before them on court.
At deuce in the first game of the match, the two players exchanged a 34-stroke rally that revealed the strong commitment of each player to the day's proceedings. For fans, the deuce point certainly foreshadowed that they were in for a treat with a serious battle ahead.
When the smoke cleared momentarily, it was Nadal that had somehow taken a 2-0 lead. The last two points came via huge forehand winners in which one wondered if Nadal could possibly hit the ball any harder.
Nadal was employing a strategy of hitting to the Delpo backhand with the intent of pushing him off court and hitting into the open space. It's a strategy Nadal is often seen to employ against high-grade baseliners. Nadal was also clearly hoping to avoid those punishing strikes from the Delpo forehand which had so effectively and completely removed Murray and Djoker from the tournament.
With excellent movement and a thundering forehand, Nadal pushed the score to 3-0—and even threatened to go up by the unthinkable 4-0.
However, like so many times in this tournament, Delpo dug out of a 15-40 hole on his own serve to finally put his first tally on the scoreboard. And as is so often the case with Delpo, he was just starting to get warmed up.
In the fifth game of the set, Delpo got his first break opportunity, which he seized with authority, cracking a forehand winner cross-court. After living dangerously and almost being down 0-4, the score was now 2-3, back on serve. For Nadal, this must have been a tough pill to swallow.
After several holds that were anything but ordinary, the final drama of the first set unfolded. At 4-4, the Argentine raised his game one level further with some blistering forehands. Finally, it seemed that the man with the bigger stature was playing with the bigger game.
Nadal who had been so close to 4-0 early on, was now down 4-5 and had been broken a second time.
However, with this new score, the pressure was now on Delpo to deliver. And deliver he did, continuing to pound his groundstrokes into a shell shocked Nadal.
Facing triple set-point down Nadal continued to battle, whittling away two of them with his usual blend of speed and power. At 30-40, Nadal had suddenly become a believer again, as had the crowd around him. Delpo had other plans though, and closed the first set on the next point.
At this stage of the match, it must be noted that the sheer force and ensuing velocity by which the Argentine was hitting his forehand gave the distinct impression that his arms must be loaded with gunpowder, and his formerly injured wrist bionically reengineered to create ignition.
This display of power and velocity continued into the second set as Delpo quickly broke again and eventually won seven of the previous eight games. It seemed at this point that the onslaught of del Potro might be too much for Nadal to handle, as it had been for Murray and Djoker. At this point, it also seemed as if Nadal might be better suited wearing a flak jacket than the light aqua T-shirt adorning his chest.
As if the drama hadn't been enough, thus far, the second game of the second set provided more. After being broken in the first game of the set, Nadal had a break point chance in the second game on Delpo's serve. After failing to convert, he released a rare shout of frustration and quickly found himself down 0-2.
Playing so well to start the match, he was now looking at the very real possibility of losing in straight sets.
It was easy to empathize with Nadal, seeing multiple well-struck balls by him coming back several degrees harder from Delpo in terms of velocity and placement.
Delpo continued to use his battering ram-like forehand at Nadal's backhand door with improving results. It was increasingly looking like it would indeed be the Argentine's day.
This was not a case by which Nadal looked to be playing badly, it was one in which del Potro simply looked better.
Down 2-3 with Juan Martin serving the first point of the sixth game Nadal appeared to hit several excellent shots well out of Delpo's reach. Time and time again during this point, the Argentine showed defensive prowess that might even make Nadal jealous, stretching for balls left and right and finally chasing down a drop shot which he returned for a winner.
After losing the point, Nadal stretched his arms wide looking to the heavens in the universal sign of both frustration and respect for such play. He seemed to be saying, "What can I do?" Indeed, it looked like the match would close swiftly in del Potro's favor.
It was that type of day.
Or was it?
In a lesson on momentum changes, Nadal suddenly found himself with two break points in that same sixth game. On the first, del Potro hit a simply unbelievable pick-up half-volley winner at the net which must have shaved within a half-millimeter of the net.
On the next point Nadal somehow dug deep enough to finally gain his second break of serve in the match and even the score at 3-3.
Back on serve in the second set, the two players scampered and banged their way to the next fork in the road, albeit with slightly less energy than seen earlier in the day.
In a striking turn of events, a set that had been seen as "in the bag" for Delpo was now leaning toward Nadal. Up 4-3 in the second set, Nadal broke through on the Delpo serve for the second time in the set, and with a 5-3 lead, had a chance to serve out the set. Nadal had survived the shelling of the del Potro artillery and seemed bigger than before, as if his soul had thrived on such suffering.
Unbelievably, after two sets of play, the score was tied at one set apiece. Even more surprising was the fact that each player had come back and taken a set that looked like it was in the other's back pocket, in almost exactly the same fashion!
The first game of the third set was a marathon. Each point was heavy with the gravity of the final result and often seeming that indeed the winner of this game would claim the trophy. After the 13th point of the game, Delpo finally won it erupting in a roar of emotion. The balance had again tipped in his favor.
In Nadal's first service game, he seemed to up the ante at the exact same time Delpo appeared to be catching his breath. Nadal may have sensed that small window of vulnerability and struck efficiently with his usual perseverance to tie the third set at one game apiece. In terms of energy, it was Nadal who now seemed to possess the endless reserve.
Delpo's energy retreated further in his next service game, and Nadal quickly achieved double-break point. Through ruthless defense, Nadal made Delpo hit one extra ball too many times and closed the break with a rocket—another blistering forehand down the line. It was now 3-1 and becoming clear that the fate of the battle would be decided by Nadal's feet or del Potro's power.
That aforementioned battle arrived in full force at 5-4 in the third set with Nadal still leading by a break.
The cannons erupted one last time on both sides of the net, but it was Nadal who emerged from the cloud of ashes with a service hold, the set and the title.
It would be Rafa's third title at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. More importantly, it would represent his first title on hard-court since the 2010 Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo.
After winning the match, Nadal slid to the court in intense emotional celebration before meeting Delpo at the net for a friendly post-match hug and handshake.
A quick review of the battlefield statistics reveals several notable numbers. On the subject of break points, Nadal had a whopping 18 chances but only converted on four of them. Del Potro had fewer chances, but used them more efficiently batting 100% on his three opportunities. After the first game of the second set, Nadal was not broken again in the match.
The most revealing statistic might have been the fact that Nadal won 72% of his second serve points, while Delpo only won 40%. Surprising given one might think that Delpo's size would be an advantage due to simple geometry.
The match against del Potro represented Nadal's 600th win on tour as well as 22nd ATP Masters 1000 title. He is now the sole leader of Masters 1000 titles moving ahead of Roger Federer who has 21. The win also gave him his third title in four tournaments, and on Monday, he will move up one spot to the No. 4 ranking in the world.
After such a closely contested match, it is probable fans of tennis will be treated to another meeting between Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in the near future. Although fewer in meetings than several of the other better-known rivalries, the collision of these two players on Sunday in Indian Wells created some jaw-dropping play and excellent sportsmanship.
Delpo was denied his first ATP Masters 1000 title, but it's likely that another chance will come soon.
For Nadal, his return to the game is looking more promising than ever. Sunday afternoon, the courage, talent and relentless desire that has characterized Nadal's entire career looked like it was propelled by a set of well-rested knees.
As long as his world-famous patellas remain healthy, Nadal should be chasing many more titles throughout 2013, as his 17-1 record, thus far, clearly indicates. The same storm by which Nadal took the desert will most likely appear soon in Europe when the clay season kicks off later this spring.
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