By Mark Lamport-Stokes
INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - The fist pump was back, along with the crunching forehand crosscourt winners, energetic movement and the never-say-say-die attitude.
Most significantly, the 'W' was there as Rafa Nadal on Sunday won his third title in just four events since making his long-awaited return to the ATP Tour after seven months out with an injured left knee.
The Spaniard's pulsating 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory over Juan Martin Del Potro in the final of the BNP Paribas Open served as a timely reminder that the claycourt specialist will once again be the player to beat at the French Open starting in late May.
"He's like always, like in the past, he's playing so solid, so strong," purred Argentine Del Potro who, while bitterly disappointed after his defeat at Indian Wells, felt Nadal was back to his very best.
"He's very strong mentally. He has big talent, as well. He beat very good players here at Indian Wells. He's gonna be fighting for the first position (in the rankings) very soon."
A few weeks ago, claycourt specialist Nadal was not even sure if he would be able to play on the punishing hard courts at Indian Wells, a surface where his all-action, counter-punching game has often been least effective.
However, the world number five decided to return to the California desert venue where he had previously clinched the BNP Paribas Open in 2007 and 2009, and he ended a week of steady progress by landing his 22nd ATP Masters title.
The Spanish left-hander may initially have had his doubts over how his knee would stand up to his most rigorous test since returning to the ATP circuit last month, but those soon abated as he passed the test with flying colours.
"It's sort of expected, considering the success throughout his career that he had on all the surfaces," world number one Novak Djokovic said of Nadal's comeback form before the Serb was ousted by Del Potro in the semi-finals.
"Obviously he's building the confidence. He feels good, and he's very motivated, I'm sure, to perform his best. He's been playing great tennis."
NO FEDERER DOUBTS
Roger Federer, crushed by his long-time rival Nadal in the last eight, never doubted that the Spaniard would thrive and move fluently on his return to the ATP circuit.
"He's not going to come back if he's not well," the 31-year-old Swiss said. "He's not going to come back half broken. I expected him to tear through the clay. I expected him to be tough here."
Nadal was euphoric after winning his third Indian Wells title, having dispatched second-ranked Federer and sixth-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych along the way.
"That makes an emotional week for me," the 11-times grand slam singles champion smiled after beating 2009 U.S. Open champion Del Potro, the seventh seed, in a fluctuating match lasting two hours 29 minutes.
"It's a very important victory for me, winning against the best players of the world on a surface that is good for them. Seriously, it's impossible to have better comeback, no?"
Nadal, who had won two ATP titles on the clay of South America last month after reaching three finals in his first three comeback events, was delighted to erase memories of his low points while on the sidelines last year.
"In terms of competition, the worst (moment) was for the Olympics, when I had to take the position to not go to Olympics," said the Spaniard, who had to skip the London Games after his 2012 campaign came to an abrupt end last year following a defeat to Czech journeyman Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon.
"In terms of the injury, the last couple of months were the worst because I worked a lot, I tried different treatments. And when you feel that you are doing everything and the results are not being very satisfactory, you go down a little bit, no?
"The doubt of when and where you will be able to be back on a tennis tournament is hard, no? And when you are there and you wake up every morning and test yourself and the test is negative, that's not nice."
All of that is now thankfully in the past for Nadal who will take a month off while he strengthens his left leg on the advice of his doctors.
He will then return to action on the clay of Monte Carlo, followed by Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, as he prepares to win his eighth French Open title in nine years.
"I'm going to go to Monte Carlo with the same expectations than ever, and I'm gonna try my best to arrive there healthy and in good shape, playing well," said Nadal. Ominous words as far as his rivals are concerned.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)