One of the most extraordinary weeks in Rafael Nadal's career ended in a remarkable victory at the Indian Wells Masters last night. In his first hard-court tournament for nearly a year following a seven-month absence with injury, Nadal claimed a record 22nd Masters Series title when he came from behind to beat Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a thrilling final.
Having decided only a fortnight ago to risk his troublesome left knee on a hard court – he played his first three comeback tournaments on clay – Nadal followed up his victories over Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych by claiming his third top-10 scalp in succession. Del Potro, who was chasing his first Masters Series title, had beaten Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic to reach the final, but was worn down by Nadal's consistent brilliance.
Since making his return last month Nadal has lost just one match. Remarkably, his 17 wins in his first 18 matches of the year constitute his best-ever start to a season, while this was his first hard-court title for three years.
Whether the 26-year-old Spaniard can maintain his momentum remains to be seen, especially as the Miami Masters, which starts tomorrow, announced last night that he has withdrawn from the tournament. On the evidence so far, however, Nadal looks set to recapture all his former powers.
While Nadal has been recovering from knee trouble, Del Potro has suffered with wrist problems. In the wake of his 2009 US Open triumph the Argentinian was out for almost a year. However, when he is able to swing freely there is no bigger striker of the ball.
Del Potro wore Nadal down with some huge forehands in the first set, though he also showed there is much more to his game by defending superbly and showing some exquisite touches at the net.
Having gone 3-0 down, Del Potro won six of the next seven games to take the first set. In the second it was Nadal's turn to fight back after an early break. From 2-0 down he broke Del Potro twice in succession to take the match into a decider. Nadal drew first blood in the third set, breaking in the third game, and served out for victory, falling on his back in celebration after Del Potro put a backhand wide on the Spaniard's fourth match point.