- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Beginning late in the 2013 season, certain events on the men's tour began to conspire, suggesting that the weather, for too long San Diego-consistent on the ATP tour, might be changing a bit. Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer beat Rafael Nadal, who had enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in history. Stanislas Wawrinka, who played Novak Djokovic in two five-set classics at the Australian and US Open, beat Andy Murray in New York and played in the year-end finals in London. Murray underwent back surgery. In 2013, the great Roger Federer hadn't beaten Nadal, Djokovic or Murray in seven tries.
This year, Wawrinka beat Djokovic and Nadal to win the Australian Open, the first player not named Federer, Nadal, Murray or Djokovic to win a Slam since 2009. Though the best in the world, Nadal could not be expected -- just as Djokovic could not in 2012 after his breakout 2011 -- to steamroll through another season without some level of drop off after expending so much energy to win 10 titles and reach 14 finals.
On its face, the world is still in balance. Novak Djokovic won Sunday's thrilling three-set final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells against Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3), and for the 27th time in the past 28 Masters 1000 tournaments, the hardware went to the Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray gated community. David Ferrer was given a day pass when he won the Paris Masters in 2012.
Djokovic won his first title of the year and the Indian Wells tournament for the third time. The win was also his 17th overall Masters 1000 title. He avenged his loss Federer in the semifinals at Dubai -- after losing the first set of the final handily -- by rediscovering the trademark Djokovic resolve to win the second set and fight through the sudden demons that plagued him in his semifinal against John Isner to win the title.
Djokovic, once seemingly home, had to hold to stay in the match and force the tiebreaker in the third set, winning when Federer wafted a soft backhand into the net on the second match point. Djokovic is now 16-17 lifetime against Federer. The Swiss' re-emergence has to, in good conscience, upset the narrative that only the Murray-Djokovic-Nadal trio can win major titles and Masters 1000 events. Federer, who returned to world No. 5, must now be re-included in the conversation as a title threat in any given tournament.
Federer and Djokovic put on a classic. Federer won the first three games of the match and rolled 6-3 in the first set, and it wasn't until late in the second when Djokovic began to inch away at Federer's serve, finally breaking through to force a third.
In the opener of the final set, Federer led 40-15 and Djokovic fought back to earn a break point. It was a marathon game. Inside of that game were the personal exhortations, its obvious importance to the match that Djokovic hadn't yet won a title in 2014. When the Serb slapped a running forehand into the net, Federer held, shaking his fist hard.
Djokovic, loser of the marathon game, returned the favor, racing out to a 40-15 lead only to hold after a deuce. At 1-1, Federer double-faulted and Djokovic had a break point and a second serve, which Federer erased with a scintillating inside-out forehand. Djokovic received a second, smothered by a 122-mph ace wide. When he received a third, Djokovic did not miss, forcing Federer to miss wide with a forehand.
The spirit of the match was augmented by the crowd, portents both of the afternoon and the year ahead. The lines were drawn between these two as they often are by the Federer attack -- serve, aggression and pinpoint control -- against the Djokovic pressure, especially defensively.
The Djokovic-Federer clashes come with a decidedly different feel than Federer-Nadal, in which the tilt of the match leans toward Nadal so much that Federer is fighting not only his opponent but the disadvantage of tactics. Here, Djokovic's classic two-handed backhand did not unnerve Federer the way Nadal's topspin hurts the Swiss' one-handed backhand. Federer, healthy again, was rarely off-balance, and neither player was placed at an inherent disadvantage by the other's game. The difference would simply be in which player could impose his will better.
Djokovic is the game's great boa constrictor. He accrued four break points on Federer's first two service games of the third, which was a testament to his suffocating nature. Djokovic applied had redefined the momentum of the afternoon. Federer had become the underdog, and the crowd knew it.
In the final set, after Federer held at love, Djokovic served for the match at 5-4, but like against Isner, the Serb faltered and was broken. Djokovic, he of the legendary resolve and fight, for the second consecutive day weakened as the finish line neared.
But Djokovic rebounded to force the tiebreaker, and by the time he reached match point at 6-2, he had won 11 of the last 13 points to hold the trophy.
"You always have to dig deep against Roger," Djokovic said. "You know that he's going to play on a very high level and the latter stages of the tournament, especially in the finals. I know that he's not going to give me anything, you know. As the match progressed, I felt like he started to make a little bit more unforced errors, and it allowed me to step into the court.
"I'm just very happy and thrilled to be able to win the first title in this season. It was the first final that I played this year. It was necessary for my confidence, and hopefully I can carry that into Miami and the rest of the season."
As or Federer, he can take a lot of solace despite the loss.
There is something both endearing and dismissive about Federer's routine chastising of the opinion-makers surrounding his sport. It is that Federer has been keenly aware of the growing feeling that he was no longer a young enough player, a good enough player, to compete for majors in five-set matches against the top layer. He had been destroyed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the French Open and battered by Tommy Robredo at the US Open. Nadal had beaten Federer rather handily, not only on clay but hard courts and tellingly, indoors at the year-end finals, in which Federer had owned him. Federer had fallen to eighth in the world.
"A few weeks ago, months ago, a few people said I couldn't play tennis anymore," Federer said. "So for me, I need to focus on my own game, on my own routines, hard work, make sure I keep a good schedule for myself. But at the same time, that fire, wanting to win, is important and right now I have that. I have a really good balance right now."
Although Federer admiringly criticized today's Internet-cable-social media culture for moving too quickly, shifting too quickly, opining without perspective, demanding that we all slow down, it is also true that only he knew the true extent of his injuries.
"I knew if I was going to feel well again that success would return," Federer said. "But then, the question is, 'Are you going to get back to that level?' There, maybe I had some doubts at certain times, but overall, I knew that it can't that I will feel this way forever. It wasn't that kind of injury.
"So it was important to just stay patient and wait. That's the most difficult thing to do. I haven't had it every often in my career. That's why it was something new for me."
So now we head to Miami with a victorious Djokovic and, even in defeat, a revived Federer, who now says he will play there. Nadal will play in Miami, too. Two weeks of upsets in the desert proved a reminder that even if matters appear to be the same, they will not be forever, another classic finale between Djokovic and Federer adding to a storied period of dominance that should be savored for as long as it lasts.