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Nadal hoping tough times dry up in the desert of Indian Wells

On Sunday evening during a news conference, Rafael Nadal described his tense and close 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 win over Gilles Muller at Indian Wells as a "great victory."

Usually, Sunday matches are for the trophy. Not this one. It was on the front end of the 10-day combined event. The great victory was a second-round triumph (Nadal, the No. 4 seed, had a first-round bye) against the ATP's No. 45, who isn't even the best Gilles on the tour. (That would be No. 19 Gilles Simon.)

Nevertheless, Nadal, the winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, was thrilled.

"The last three matches that I lost have been in three sets or five sets," he declared. "So I needed a victory like this. Very happy for that."

Nadal's humility is disarming, his work ethic unparalleled. But by now it seems unlikely that those qualities, or anything else, is going to help transform Nadal back into the King of Clay, the towering champion he was as recently as the middle portion of 2014. Put bluntly, Nadal's glory days probably are over.

"He isn't really close to Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer now," Patrick McEnroe said of Nadal in a conference call from Indian Wells on Monday. "As much as he says, 'I will keep working,' the results don't lie.

"[Nadal] went to South America this winter to play in two clay-court tournaments, and he lost in both. Is he capable of going on a run at the French Open? Absolutely. What he doesn't seem capable of doing is getting it together for a run at the No. 1 ranking."

These are strange times indeed for Rafael Nadal. When you consider his commanding 23-11 head-to-head advantage over Federer and his punishing marathons against top-ranked Djokovic, it seemed Nadal -- still just 29, relatively young in today's AARP-friendly game -- was poised to overtake 17-time Grand Slam singles titlist Federer as the all-time champion.

But once again, hope blooms for Nadal in Indian Wells in March like some rare desert flower. And why not? He has an excellent résumé at the ATP Masters 1000 event. He has won the title three times and has a 44-8 record, good for more than $3 million in prize money. He's tight with the owner and driving force behind the tournament -- billionaire and unabashed Nadal fan Larry Ellison.

Most germane, Indian Wells is the place where Nadal convinced himself that he can win big on hard courts. The gritty, asphalt-based surface was the proving ground for his transformation from a player who lingered back behind the baseline on all surfaces, retrieving and counterattacking, into one who staked himself on or inside the baseline on faster courts.

The difference proved critical. By playing up in the box, he was able to force the action, move in, take time away from his opponents -- and keep them from attacking him, as well.

All in all, Nadal should feel optimistic at Indian Wells. It helps explain why he was particularly satisfied with his "attitude" during the Muller match, which was played under challenging, windy and damp conditions.

"It's tough against a player who serves very well and who goes to the net," Nadal said of Muller. "It's obvious those conditions help a player who normally plays less from the baseline, no?"

Nadal also aced a test that he has failed too often in these difficult days: He played firm, decisive tennis in the last few games to close out Muller.

"The last two games of the match were very important, obviously," Nadal said. "I was able to play more aggressive, with more determination. That's something that stays in my mind and is very positive."

The only catch is that he has spoken those or similar words more than a few times in the past, only to backslide. Too often, he would follow a strong performance or two with an anxiety-riddled one. His once-lethal forehand would mysteriously lose energy and start falling short, as if his opponent found the valve that let the air out of Nadal's game. It has become a pattern.

"It's a long road back," Chris Evert, also on the call with McEnroe, said of Nadal's prospects. "He's unlike any other player. He trained differently, and maybe that has something to do with his struggles now. It doesn't look like he will get to the semis and finals of big tournaments as regularly as the other top guys."

Nadal might be through at the top, but he certainly is going to keep trying as long as he believes he can get back there.