With sweat streaming down his face under the hot desert sun, Rafael Nadal served himself into the finals at the BNP Paribas Open.
And by doing so he simultaneously served up an enticing matchup in the finals at Indian Wells that almost no one was expecting when the tournament first started.
Juan Martin del Potro made his own splash Sunday by beating Novak Djokovic in three highly entertaining sets.
Against Tomas Berdych, Nadal won 6-4, 7-5 in relatively routine fashion to further boost an already impressive campaign at Indian Wells.
With the win, Nadal officially changed his status on tour from "comeback" to simply "back."
After claiming two clay titles and now an appearance in the Indian Wells final, Nadal served notice that despite recent knee problems he's not to be taken lightly—on any surface.
Taking Berdych out in straight sets was reminiscent of other matches in a rivalry where Nadal holds a 13-3 career edge. However, those statistics don't tell the entire tale. Nadal won the first 12 meetings before losing three straight meetings on hard court against Berdych in recent competition.
The straight-sets win over Berdych at Indian Wells has some meaningful implications.
For one, Nadal obliterated the theories of many pundits saying he could no longer be competitive on the hard court surface.
Not only can he be competitive, it seems he can be one of the most competitive—he will stand as one of the final two in a tournament that featured almost all of the world's best players. And on cement, not clay.
Although the semifinal today against Berdych did contain several instances of drama, the overall tenor of the match seemed to favor Nadal. Rafa didn't face a break point on his own serve until the 18th game of the match.
Wearing his familiar Indian Wells attire of an aqua T-shirt and grey shorts along with neon yellow shoelaces matching his racket, Nadal seemed a lot more comfortable than he had been against either Ernests Gulbis or Roger Federer. Maybe it was the fact that the semifinal was held under a hot sun reminiscent of his island home in Spain that helped settle Nadal's spirit. Or maybe it was simply that Nadal was feeling that at this stage in the tournament he had nothing to lose.
Either way, the first set of the match was relatively routine with Nadal gaining a break and serving out the final game to end the set 6-4.
However, the second set wasn't quite so easy. Throughout the match Berdych had been hitting some extremely effective cross-court backhands that leveraged his size and created some remarkable angles. It was this type of pressure that eventually gave Berdych his first real chance in the match.
Down 3-4 and facing his first break points of the match, Nadal showed some uncharacteristic nerves and double-faulted to give Berdych a 3-5 lead. The actual double-fault was immediately preceded by a near double-fault.
Facing the same break point, Nadal hit a second serve that taped the net and popped high in the air before dropping just inside the service box. Nadal followed that serve up with the actual double-fault that landed well outside the line towards the doubles alley.
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Finding himself down a break and 3-5 in the second set, something seemed to erupt within Nadal during the ninth game and he attacked the ball with increased intensity. Nadal scampered around the court hitting high-pace forehands to create a triple break opportunity in Berdych's next service game. After a near miss, he completed the break and as swiftly as that the two were back on serve in the second set.
It was all downhill from there for the tall man from the Czech Republic. In what seemed like an instant, Nadal went from down 3-5 to up 6-5 and serving for the match.
The last game of the match was one of the most exciting with Nadal finding himself in an early 0-30 hole. This particular game was characterized by more than a few service winners in which Nadal bailed himself out of trouble. Nadal then closed out the victory with another strong serve and jumped for joy with his usual arm-pumping motion in celebration.
With the triumph, Nadal has his first win against one of the so-called "tall trees" on tour since he returned to the game. These are the aptly nicknamed players such as Berdych, Andy Murray and Djokovic that have found their way to the top of the game through excellent movement, talent as well as substantial vertical stature.
Nadal's ability to serve himself out of trouble was a highlight of the match and showed just how much that extra strength in his knees might be helping the rest of his game. Throughout the tournament and this match, Nadal also appeared to be getting much better depth on his backhand both returning serve and playing within points. It is important to note this aspect of his game has not suffered as the competition has grown.
Ranked only No. 5 in the world and playing under the umbrella of criticism that his game would no longer work on hard courts, Nadal fought his way to the final in a tournament featuring all of the Big Four. Given that hard court is the favored surface of the world's top three players, that makes this piece of his comeback all the more impressive.
Nadal clearly appeared both excited and relieved after the final ball was struck, and the camera even remained on him as he went through his very deliberate post-match routine. He also appeared to be visibly trembling during his on-court interview with Brad Gilbert. This may be partially attributable to dehydration, but more than likely Nadal was feeling extremely emotional about this particular victory.
Though many have doubted Nadal's hard-court abilities even prior to his most recent injury, this was Nadal's eighth straight appearance in the semifinals at Indian Wells. He will be playing for his third career title at the tournament.
Nadal will be facing another surprising finalist come Sunday. Del Potro overcame a deep deficit in the third set to beat world No.1 Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the desert. Del Potro was down 0-3 in the third set before storming back to a 3-3 tie and ultimately a 6-4 victory. The outcome snatched away from the tennis world what many had expected to be a Nadal-Djokvocic final, an enticing and well-known rivalry.
However, through his incredible play, Del Potro may have set up a very exciting final in its own right.
Del Potro beat Murray in the quarterfinals and then world No. 1 Djokovic in the semifinals. An impressive feat for any player having upended two of the top three players in the game on their preferred playing surface.
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With these wins, world No. 7 Del Potro showed some of the same potential and talent seen when winning his first Grand Slam tournament at the 2009 US Open. At that tournament he became the first man to beat both Nadal and Federer in the same Slam. He also remains the only person not named Nadal to have beaten Federer in the final of a Slam.
Unfortunately, his ascent in tennis was somewhat derailed shortly after that huge victory by a wrist injury that kept him off tour for a significant amount of time throughout 2010, notably missing his chance to defend his title at the US Open. It is something many have cited as a reason he hasn't yet fulfilled his full potential in the game.
Of their 10 previous meetings, Nadal holds the edge over del Potro with a 7-3 record. Nadal has beaten del Potro the last four consecutive times they have played, including a meeting at Indian Wells in 2011. In Grand Slams play Nadal also holds the edge at 2-1.
However, the one loss Nadal suffered to del Potro at the 2009 US Open was a memorable beating with a final score of 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. Nadal was bothered by strained muscles in his abdomen during that tournament which seemed to clearly limit his serve.
The final at Indian Wells thus becomes a clash of two players attempting to ascend back into the top ranks after significant injury breaks from the tour, albeit under different circumstances. Their head-to-head history is checkered by different ailments that have affected each player to a different degree during almost every match.
The 2013 final at Indian Wells might actually represent the best chance to see how these two measure up when fully healthy, assuming neither experienced a considerable setback in their semifinal match.
Del Potro actually commented on Nadal's comeback recently and made reference to his own previous recovery from injury telling Reuters, "It took that long for me to be confident with my wrist and to get up every morning thinking about my tennis game and not my wrist. It took all that whole year for me to be ready mentally again."
Nadal and del Potro will have removed four big names from the tour in the last two rounds and we can only hope their clash brings the same level of play those previous rounds must have required.
Thus far, Nadal may have been aided by less pressure than usual at this stage of a major tournament, having stated at a recent press conference covered by ASAP Sports, "Every match is fantastic for me to have the chance to keep playing, and I gonna enjoy the match against another top, top player. Will be another important test for me, and I gonna try."
The difference is that in this final both players will have fewer expectations upon them and consequently less pressure. The fact that their rivalry isn't one of the deepest on tour should be viewed as a positive entering play on Sunday.There's plenty left to discover about their games in such a meeting and far less repetition in patterns of play.
Given the talent they chewed through to meet at this stage, it will also be interesting to see if these two meet again soon.