Big dogs finally all feeling fit

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- After the pain, there's the gain. Although an injury isn't an enjoyable experience for a player, it can lead to a renewed appreciation for simply being able to play uninhibited, high-level tennis again.

Having all struggled with back injuries over the past year, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal find themselves at various points in the comeback cycle.

For Federer, it has been a year since his back began acting up again, slowly unraveling his whole season. First the back went, and then with it his movement, training schedule, results and, eventually, confidence. Each has taken awhile to rebuild, particularly the confidence. Even now, the hiccup toward the end of his opening match against Paul-Henri Mathieu at Indian Wells was a telling sign that it is not all the way back, but winning the title in Dubai the week before was a big boost.

When the back feels better, so do the wins. "I am playing nicely now and better and playing pain-free for a long [amount] of time, which is the goal," Federer told reporters before the tournament. "Just [to] have for three or four months now where it's solid, it just feels great. Then winning just cements that, and gives you a good feeling. It's more fun playing that way, gives me more confidence and makes me eager to play more and win more."

The victory in Dubai gave Federer his first title since last July in Halle, and along the way, his first win against Novak Djokovic since 2012. He insisted that the title was the bigger of the two accomplishments, though knocking off Djokovic was in some ways more attention-grabbing.

"For me it stands out, winning a tournament, holding a trophy in my hands. I'm not holding Novak up, you know," he joked, lifting his arms up in trophy pose. "Though it was a great bonus to be able to beat him on a hard court ... and he usually plays so well in Dubai, so this was a big win for me. And same with beating [Tomas] Berdych as well -- he's been having a great season so far. So it's just nice being able to win, beat as many top-10 guys now in two months than what I did all of last year."

Although Federer seems to finally have recaptured much of his form and is now seeking the results to go along with it, Murray is still trying to get his game back. After undergoing back surgery last year and returning only at the beginning of the season, he felt himself starting to regain his level at Acapulco.

"I'm starting to move well again. I'm starting to feel comfortable with my movement," he said in his pre-tournament news conference. "Once you get there, you need to do something with the ball, and I felt in Acapulco I was starting to get to balls and actually do [that] and getting maybe out of difficult situations in points.

''The last couple of weeks I've really started to feel normal again. I'm not saying it's ahead of schedule; it's pretty much on schedule. I wasn't expecting to feel perfect in January. But as an athlete, it can be frustrating when you come back to play your best and you're not quite there.''

He started slowly against Lukas Rosol in his opening match at Indian Wells, but Murray also enjoys the challenge of working on improving. "When things aren't going well, for me anyway, I tend to spend more time on the court, more time in the gym. In some ways it motivates me.

"For me, the challenge for me this year -- obviously coming back from the surgery was tough -- [is] trying to maintain the level of consistency throughout the year. Which I had had at the Slams, but not necessarily other events. That's what I'm trying to achieve this year."

Nadal, meanwhile, is still recovering from the back problems he experienced in the Australian Open final, with the injury continuing to affect his serve. He served eight double faults in his Indian Wells opener against Radek Stepanek, his highest-ever total for a match.

But he's willing to be out there as long as he is competitive, because it hurts more not to compete. Just take his reaction to losing this year's Australian Open final to Stanislas Wawrinka, where he was clearly hampered for much of the match.

"One of the toughest moments of my career, being in the final of a Grand Slam, spending 1½ hour there knowing you will not win," he said ahead of his first match at Indian Wells. "You will not win is not important thing; worse thing is you will not compete."

Losing the epic 2012 Australian Open final against Djokovic was less frustrating, he added. "I had the match in the fifth. I [fought] for six hours, should be more disappointing. [But] for me, was much more disappointing this one.

"I did everything right to compete for the final, and I couldn't.

"Wawrinka was playing unbelievable. I don't know if I will have the chance to win that match ... But talking about my feeling, the most disappointing thing is that I didn't compete."

That made the defeat harder to get over than most. "I am a great loser," said Nadal. "I never think about the losses when I am losing -- just a few hours, then I forget it and look straight to the next thing. [But] is true, after that [one] it takes a little bit more time."

Nadal, more than most, knows how satisfying overcoming injuries can be. He described last year's victory at Indian Wells as one of his "most special" -- an unexpected title in his first hard-court event after seven months off with a knee injury.

Although it goes without saying that he would rather not be injured in the first place, Nadal acknowledged how rewarding comebacks can be. "Is better to don't have comebacks," he joked, before adding, "But is true, that when you are coming back after an injury -- when you didn't play well, you are low -- is a special feeling."

A bad back makes it good to be back.