It began cautiously, almost fearfully, with limited expectations five weeks ago down in Vina del Mar, Chile.
Sunday the return of Rafael Nadal was completed on a sun-splashed afternoon of high emotion in the California desert when the Spaniard recovered from a set and 1-3 down to beat Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 and win the BNP Paribas Open for the third time in seven years.
By doing so Nadal won his 600th match on the ATP tour and passed Roger Federer to claim his 22nd Masters 1000 title -- a record. It was also Rafa's third title out of the four tournaments he has played since his return. But this occasion was about so much more than statistics.
Nadal, without the ability to compete, is like a man dying of thirst amongst the sands that surround Indian Wells. He needs it, thrives on it and when pushed to his limits he blossoms like the spring which now awaits him -- along with his beloved clay courts -- in Europe.
The announcement that Nadal has taken the sensible decision to rest his troublesome knees that kept him out of the game for seven months and pull out of this week's Miami event was the only negative aspect of an afternoon that served up some fabulous tennis for the noisy, cheering crowd who let out an ear-splitting roar when Nadal turned the match inside out by winning the second set.
But they were appreciative of del Potro, too -- a man of quiet demeanor and huge heart who battled an awesome opponent and the fatigue which was gripping his body after strength-sapping battles in the heat against Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the world's first- and third-ranked players.
After falling flat on his back after winning match point, Nadal ran over to shake the hand of tournament owner Larry Ellison, who has become a good friend -- not least because he bought a local golf course that Rafa can play on -- and then jumped into the arms of his coaches and trainers who have born the brunt of getting this great athlete fit again. Uncle Toni, his No. 1 coach, was back home, no doubt applauding every point.
"It is a very emotional moment for me," Nadal said. "A lot of things happened the last seven months, so to be back here and to have this heavy trophy with me is amazing, no? Beating three top-10, three very important players (Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych and Del Potro) and win title like this is something unbelievable for me. When you have a comeback like I'm having, you remember all the low things you had during seven months, doubts and all these things. Like missing the Olympics; like waking up every morning and testing yourself and the test is negative. You know, it's not nice feeling."
Like so many great performers, it was the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd that Nadal missed most. "I missed the feeling to go on a big stadium with all the people; this atmosphere makes you feel something different, this adrenalin at that moment is very difficult to find outside of this, no?"
Providing those knees do not let him down, Nadal will have that feeling many more times in the coming months.
The match was a switchback ride for the players and the committed crowd -- mostly fans shouting "Rafa, Rafa!" but there was support for the Argentine, too. Nadal got off to the faster start and led 3-1. Then, when poised on game point to go ahead 4-1, he let a defensive lob bounce right on his baseline and hit a bad smash into the net. On the next point, more great retrieving from del Potro saw another ball bounce on the line and this time Nadal hooked it wide. A huge forehand winner completed the unexpected break back and the Argentine went on to win nine of 11 games.
"I lost my calm," was how Nadal explained it. "I didn't choose the right shots. I was wrong in the strategy of the moment which is not usual for me. I tried to change direction to his forehand but against an amazing player like Juan Martin it is not easy to change the dynamic of the match."
In the meantime Del Potro feasted on the opportunities that suddenly presented themselves. That huge forehand cracked winners to all parts of the court and, although Nadal was moving as well as he had done all week, many were smashing into the stop netting before he could intervene.
The sun seemed to be setting on Spanish hopes as the shadows stretched across the court when Nadal made four forehand errors to drop serve at the start of the second set. Serving for a 4-2 lead, Del Potro came up with one of most technically beautiful shots of the match when he produced a delicate drop shot off a backhand half volley to save the first of two break points. But he then put a forehand long and, once again, the match was poised to take a different turn.
Nadal cut out the errors and broke again to take the second set. The tall Argentine was starting to look a little fatigued by this stage and Nadal took charge, breaking to lead 2-1 in the third and never relinquishing control again.
"He played unbelievable for an hour there," said Del Potro, who congratulated his opponent in Spanish at the presentation ceremony. "He deserved to win today. To see the matches he played in Vina del Mar and see the difference between then and now, he is like a different player. It takes time to change or improve but he made it so quick, so fast. I'm so happy for him."
Despite Sunday's loss, this tournament has lifted Del Potro's game and boosted his confidence. He will be playing Miami and is looking forward to the special support he receives from the large contingent of South American supporters.