BILL DWYRE

Rafael Nadal cements his return with hardcourt win at Indian Wells

Rafael Nadal, not long removed from layoff caused by a knee injury, defeats Juan Martin del Potro in BNP Paribas Open final. Maria Sharapova wins women's title.

On a hot summer-like Sunday afternoon, in a stadium that rises out of the Southern California desert like a huge misplaced castle, Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal slid onto his back and into the bright lights of his sport once again.

It was match point of the men's final in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

The clock showed that he had been out there 21/2 hours. A crowd of 16,741 squeezed into this 16,100-seat spectator mansion had waited for this moment. Winning this tournament is always a huge deal, but they all knew that, for Nadal, this would be even bigger.

When Juan Martin del Potro's shot floated near the sideline, then clearly drifted wide, Nadal collapsed into a flat-on-his-back slide of jubilation, his racket flying and his emotions soaring.

He had won, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. He had done so after being a set and a service break down. He had dug in, battled and run down every ball. He had performed as he always has in a career that, with much left at age 26, has already brought 11 Grand Slam tournament titles.

Which was exactly the reason for such unabashed joy and emotion over winning a tournament he had already won twice before. This one wasn't supposed to happen. This one was supposed to be a step on the ladder, not the final boost to the roof.

The fans understood the situation and magnitude of the moment, both for Nadal and the sport.

They were there for the first match, the women's final, in which Maria Sharapova won her second Indian Wells title by handling Caroline Wozniacki handily. Her 6-2, 6-2 romp, which prompted former No. 1 player Wozniacki to say that Sharapova played "almost perfect," should not have been lost in the shadow of the men's final, and normally would not have been.

Although it seems as if Sharapova has been around forever — she started in 2003 — she is only 25 and has already left a remarkable legacy in her sport. She is one of only a handful of players, male or female, to have won each major title. Add to her championships at the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open her silver medal in last year's London Olympics and you've got somebody worth a chapter in the sport's history books.

"I feel like I'm a different player, much more experienced," said Sharapova, who also won here in 2006. "But it's still nice to hold that trophy after so many years."

Even Sharapova had to know that, despite the $1-million paycheck she got in this equal-pay-for-men-and-women event, she was on the undercard this time.

Nadal was about to do his best Michael Jordan imitation.

With a victory here, in a tournament that continues to rise in stature and drew a record 382,227 for its 12-day run, he would be back. It would not be a two-word statement with both words in big headlines. It would be the completion of a five-match-and-one-default grind on a court surface that has not been kind to his left knee.

Because of an injury to that knee, he left the game for seven months. He had walked off the hard courts of Miami about a year ago, after a victory, and would not return to that surface until this Indian Wells event. He dipped his toe in the tournament water a few weeks ago in events on the South American tour. Those are on softer clay courts.

The hard courts of Indian Wells were the real test. He said he didn't expect to win, didn't even entertain the thought.

Then he beat No. 2 Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, top-10 player Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the semifinals and took on the huge-hitting Del Potro the day after the Argentine player had bounced out No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

And suddenly, there he was, flat on his back, in a celebration few would have considered possible.

"This was a very emotional one, yes," he said. "A lot of things happen in seven months. You remember the low things . . . doubts and all those other things."

He won another French Open last May, then lost early on the grass at Wimbledon and played no more until South America this year. He missed two Grand Slams, the U.S. Open and this year's Australian. That seemed unthinkable for a player with such fire in his belly for top competition. Speculation ran heavy that he might never return.

Now, with his 600th tour match victory and record 22nd Masters series title in hand, there is little question he will be a force again. He moved up a notch to No. 4 with his result here, behind, in order, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray. Del Potro, No. 7 himself, sees no ceiling.

"He will be fighting for the first position very soon," Del Potro said.

Against Del Potro, Nadal won the first three games, then lost nine of the next 11, and still rallied. For much of the match, it was David versus Goliath, and Nadal wasn't Goliath.

But then, as the Nadal of old always did, he figured it out and Del Potro became another victim, ground into the dust by a relentless attack.

Nadal won't go to Miami for the next tournament. Doctors want him to rest the knee. Players heading for Miami would like to thank the doctors.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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