Nadal back in business, Sharapova rises at Indian Wells
• Vamos, Rafa. In an admirable, bragging-is-anathema kind of way, Rafael Nadal might be the biggest sandbagger in sports. He is forever downplaying his chances, declaring himself fortunate to have won. Still, Nadal was well within his rights to question his future when he began a comeback last month after a dispiriting seven-month absence. Movement is the foundation of his game, and if his knees were still balky, he was akin to a diva with laryngitis.
Nadal, of course, acquitted himself just fine on the clay. Then, last week on the hard courts of Indian Wells -- the surface that causes so many physical problems -- Nadal returned in earnest. Those concerns about his career? They disappeared in the dust of the California desert. In his best week of non-clay tennis in years, Nadal beat a dangerous Ernests Gulbis, an injured Roger Federer (maybe the worst match of their rivalry), and a hard-hitting Tomas Berdych. Then, in his 18th match in three weeks, he rallied to beat Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the final. When Nadal fell to the ground after match point on Sunday and jumped into his box to celebrate, it didn't feel the least bit melodramatic.
"My movement today was unbelievable, I ran for balls that I never thought I would be able to do again," he said Sunday. "I am very happy for that, there have been a lot of difficult moments in the last eight months.'
There are all sorts of consequences to this win. Nadal now re-enters the top four. He has now won 22 Masters titles, a record. He improved his head-to-head record against Federer. Most important, he's let it be known to all, not least himself: he's back and, again, open for business.
• Sharapova ascends. Serena Williams may sit atop the rankings, and Victoria Azarenka may have gotten off to her customary fast start. But Maria Sharapova reminded us that she is the third member of the WTA troika, winning the women's event, her biggest title since the French Open last spring. As with that event, Sharapova didn't exactly have to beat the best to win.
No matter. She took care of the opponents put before her, blasting them away with her power, serving well in spurts and avoiding lapses. Sharapova won the 28th title of her career, without dropping a set, taking care of Caroline Wozniacki in the final, 6-2, 6-2. She moves to No. 2, supplanting Azarenka.
"I didn't feel like I played my best tennis in the beginning of the tournament, but sometimes that's the way it works," she said Sunday. "It's always better to work yourself through the tournament and get better as it ends than to start extremely well and don't feel like you're gaining momentum as the tournament goes on."
• Big week for Argentina. After winning the first set on Sunday, Juan Martin del Potro couldn't put away Rafel Nadal. Still, it was an exceptional tournament for the Argentine, who beat both Andy Murray and Djokovic en route to the final. In the semifinals, Del Potro was down 0-3 against Djokovic and rallied to win, handing the Serb his first defeat of 2013. One of the few openly religious players on tour, Del Potro was buoyed by the news that a countryman, Francis I, was introduced as the new pope last week.
• Other notable results from the desert: Nice to see Angelique Kerber get back to her winning ways, reaching the semis before losing to Wozniacki. Bad luck for the WTA: Serena Williams is absent, Sloane Stephens loses her first match and Victoria Azarenka withdraws with an injury, joining Sam Stosur and Li Na on the shelf.
Sam Querrey not only reached the fourth round but got engaged over the weekend. Another of the big guys, South Africa's Kevin Anderson -- potentially a player to play under the U.S. flag? -- beat both David Ferrer and Gilles Simon before falling to Berdych. Another strong week for Gulbis, who qualified, won three matches and then gave Nadal all he could handle. The team of Ekatrina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won the women's doubles. The Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike, won the men's doubles. Of course they did.
• On to Miami. For better or worse, the caravan now rolls on to another big-ticket hard-court event, the Miami Masters d/b/a the Sony Open. This is good news for the John Isner types, coming off of dismal losses and now given a chance to redeem themselves. It's less good news for, say, Sharapova, who has little time to bask in her success. In the past, it's been Indian Wells that's had to contend with the absence of the Williams sisters. This year, Miami must contend with the absences of both Roger Federer (for the first time in his career) and Rafael Nadal.