INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Rafael Nadal arrived at Indian Wells not believing he could win the tournament. A week later, the crystal trophy awarded to the champion was on the table next to him.
Nadal has been busy picking up trophies since he returned from a left knee injury in early February. The Spaniard has won three tournaments, including two on his favorite clay surface, and been runner-up in another after missing seven months.
"I did much more than what I dreamed," he said after rallying to beat Juan Martin del Potro in three sets at the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday, his first hard-court tournament title since October 2010.
"Coming back is certainly something amazing for me, totally unexpected, and I received more support than ever from the crowd every place that I played."
Nadal is cresting now after last summer's low point, when injury forced him to miss the London Olympics. He couldn't practice because of tendinitis in his knee and various treatments yielded little success.
"When you feel that you are doing everything and the results are not being very satisfactory, you go down a little bit. The doubt when and where you will be able to be back on a tennis tournament is hard," he said. "When you are there and wake up every morning and test yourself and the test is negative, it's not the right feeling, that's not nice."
Nadal tapes his leg just below his left knee during matches, and he's taking things day by day. He withdrew from this week's tournament near Miami — where he pulled out of his semifinal last year because of his knee — on the advice of doctors.
He was told to go home and rest, and work on strengthening his quadriceps. He said he takes anti-inflammatories nightly because of his knee, and hopes he can play without them shortly.
He won't return to the ATP Tour until mid-April on clay in Monte Carlo.
Nadal moved up one spot to No. 4 in this week's rankings, and Del Potro thinks he can consistently challenge the big three of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray soon. Nadal beat Federer in straight sets at Indian Wells.
"Rafa can do everything. Not many players can do that," Del Potro said. "He's very strong mentally. His game is very good, very strong, very solid. He has big talent, as well. It's amazing how fast he's recovered the level."
Nadal was consumed by nerves in closing out his semifinal win over Top-10 opponent Tomas Berdych, who lost 6-4, 7-5. Being away from competition for so long eroded his skill at managing the big points.
"Even if you practiced a lot at home, that was not my case, you need to compete to feel 100 percent ready," he said. "You need to compete to feel quick, recover the right vision of the points and the nice reaction in every moment."
Nadal said his Indian Wells victory was the most emotional of his comeback tournaments. He collapsed on his back when Del Potro's last shot sailed wide. He got up, hugged Del Potro, dashed over to his team in the stands for hugs. Then he fell to his knees on the court.
That kind of adrenaline could not be found during his seven months away.
"I miss the feeling to go on a big stadium with all the people, all this atmosphere that makes you feel something different," he said.