What knee issues? Rafa rules again

The story started with his knee. It ended with his racket.

For nearly a year, we questioned and cross-examined what fraction of Rafael Nadal would be left when he eventually made his way back to the circuit. On Sunday, that interrogation finally came to a close. He squeezed by Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to win the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. It was a fitting end to a comeback already marked with various obstacles.

Now the narrative of a player beset by a career-threatening injury will finally take a healthier twist and focus on Rafael Nadal the tennis player. And that, as you might expect, should leave his many interested challengers rightfully frazzled.

For all the bluster heading into Indian Wells, Nadal looked very much like the spirited Grand Slam champion we've always known. There were no discernible signs of knee or any other physical woes. Against del Potro, Nadal found himself playing defensively and taking abrupt stops and turns for three sets, but he still showcased his imposing speed and finished points with the same jarring winners.

Nadal can now call himself a Masters 1000 champion for a record 22nd time, one more than Mr. Roger Federer. But this one has to be as much about relief as it does exultation, considering the ordeal he's been though.

For the uninitiated, and there's probably only one of you (so here's the cliff-notes version), Nadal went to Wimbledon last year and left broken. An unknown, Lukas Rosol, stunned the serial Grand Slam champ in five sets. That match knocked Rafa out of England and out of tennis for seven months with a damaged knee. Other ailments would eventually arise and delay even further any kind of return to the court.

In early February, Nadal's comeback finally began in Chile, where he lost in the finals, and it continued in two other smaller tournaments in Brazil and Mexico. Nadal won both of those titles, but they were played on the comforts of clay, and the level of competition -- well let's just say beating guys like Delbonis and Souza, even Almagro -- doesn't have the same cachet as taking down a hearty Masters 1000 field.

Amazingly, 346 days removed from his last hard-court match, Nadal's vintage game materialized with each passing round at Indian Wells, despite some laboring along the way. Ryan Harrison played him tight in the opener, and after a walkover, Ernests Gulbis had Rafa reeling before the Latvian realized he was, in fact, Ernests Gulbis and folded. But you can also credit that W to Nadal's cool championship demeanor, which, as it always does, belied his bone-crushing groundies.

But it was the big, ballyhooed "reunion of a rivalry" that set the tone of his comeback. From the moment the draw was announced, all eyes eagerly counted down the days until Nadal and Federer would square off again. The match had the electric feel of a Grand Slam final going in but left the fervent crowd flat after a straight-sets demolition. Nadal, like so many other times, appeared to have Federer beaten before they walked onto the court and then dashed through the defending champion 6-4, 6-2 with clean, crisp winners from the get-go.

Now after beating Tomas Berdych and del Potro in his last two matches, Nadal is at a near-perfect 17-1 this year, including 14 straight wins. That is, unbelievably, the best start of his career.

Against del Potro, Nadal found himself stretching and defending, chasing and clawing, but he managed to break del Potro early in the third set to solidify the win. Rafa will move back to No. 4 in the ATP World Tour Rankings.

Del Potro himself is no stranger to injury. After winning the 2009 U.S. Open, he missed 10 months to surgically repair his persistent wrist injury. But Saturday, the Argentine ended Novak Djokovic's 22-match winning streak, which dated back to last October, in the semifinals. This a day after dismissing Andy Murray from the tournament. Del Potro, who fell to 3-8 against Nadal, failed to win his first Masters 1000 title.

Sure, there are some detractors, justified or not, who will still shed a few doubts. Nadal, perhaps with the tennis lords giving him a little nudge, was able to safely avoid his other two archrivals, Djokovic and Murray, at Indian Wells. But this day, this tournament was about what Nadal did accomplish. It was about a cathartic end to a painful year, physically and most certainly mentally.

So now what? Nadal pulled out the Sony Ericsson Open, which starts later this week, as most suspected he would so as not to risk reinjury. Thus the onset of the clay season is next, and with that, the French Open, where Nadal will be the overwhelming favorite to win for an eighth time. And if Nadal was this good on a surface so evil to his knees, what's to stop him from rolling through the next few months?

Not Lukas Rosol, that's for sure.