March 18, 2013

Not Done Yet

It wasn't that long ago that all four players contesting the finals at this year's BNP Paribas Open, to one extent or another, had fallen a bit off the radar. Each had worked his or her way back on the scene, but perhaps it was their performances at Indian Wells over the past ten days that truly cemented their return to the game.

Former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki had long been criticized for holding the ranking without a Major title to back it up, and when all the pressure finally led to a disappointing 2012 season and a drop nearly out of the top ten, some predicted an eventual end to the Dane's ride. She seemed to get back on track in the desert, though -- after dominating an early round against suddenly surging Elena Vesnina and surviving a potential challenge from Nadia Petrova, never to be counted out, she really raised her game. Against fourth seeded Angelique Kerber in the semis, Caro was down a set and a break before finding her groove and coming back in exciting style. The win earned Wozniacki her first final of the year, and her biggest since winning the title here in 2011.

Her run, eventually, was stopped by similarly resurgent Maria Sharapova on Sunday afternoon. Another one once atop the rankings, her climb back to the top was slow and steady and culminated with a historic completion of the Grand Slam last spring, but that was the last title she won on any surface since. As the second seed in Indian Wells, the Russian didn't have as tough a road to the final, but the pressure was nonetheless on last year's runner-up to deliver. And having not dropped a set the entire event, that's just what she did in Sunday's championship -- she took an early lead against Wozniacki and never looked back. The win was her first hardcourt title since mid-2011, but maybe more importantly proved just how hungry she still is to add to her trophy chest.

The men are hungry too. Juan Martin Del Potro, like MaSha before him, had been on the comeback trail for years, finally getting his footing with a Bronze medal in London and a couple big wins over long-time nemesis Roger Federer late last year. He'd also won a title in Rotterdam this season, but he truly hit his stride in the California desert -- after a solid win over relentless veteran Tommy Haas in the fourth round, he notched a stunning come-from-behind victory against reigning U.S. Open champ Andy Murray and then powered through to repeat his Olympic triumph over world #1 Novak Djokovic. It was the first time in more than three years he'd defeated two top-five players at one event, and may have sealed his return to the sport's elite.

But DelPo's campaign would eventually Sunday when he'd face the ultimate comeback of the year. Rafael Nadal, champion here in 2009, had characteristically dominated the early clay court season, losing a final in Viña del Mar before reclaiming glory in Brazil and Mexico. But no one really expected him to accomplish much on the tougher hard courts, by far his least successful surface -- and with a loss just two weeks ago at an exhibition in New York, at the hands of Juan Martin Del Potro, no less, he might have actually been the underdog in Sunday's final. But Nadal proved he still had the fighting spirit he's shown so many times before -- after defeating Roger Federer in the quarters and one-time Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych a round later, he was down a set to the big Argentine, but he regrouped to close out the match in two and a half hours. It was the six-hundredth match win of his career and his record twenty-second Masters crown -- if that doesn't prove he's still very much in contention for the big trophies, it seems clear he'll be giving even more evidence over the months to come.

It shouldn't be too surprising that these champions haven't fallen away into the shadows -- their attitudes throughout their careers show just how hard they're willing to fight. But with some big wins all week, their spirit has certainly translated into real results at Indian Wells. And with the season still having really just begun, I expect we haven't seen the last of any of them yet.

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