Can Del Potro stay hot in desert?

Rafael Nadal reaching the final of this ATP Masters 1000 on hard courts after a seven-month layoff is a tough act to follow as far as headline-making is concerned. But Juan Martin Del Potro managed it here in the semifinal of the BNP Paribas Open on Saturday night.

The tall, seemingly languid Argentine fought back superbly from down 3-0 in the final set to inflict the first defeat of the year on world No. 1 Novak Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Having beaten Andy Murray the day before, this meant that Del Potro had taken out both Australian Open finalists back to back. Given the heat and standard of opposition, this was a Herculean effort on the part of a talented player who has struggled to regain his self-confidence following the wrist surgery he underwent shortly after winning the US Open in 2009.

But nothing daunted this quietly spoken 24-year-old from Tandil, a city to the south of Buenos Aires that turned out years ago en masse to greet him after he had beaten Roger Federer to win at Flushing Meadows. Saturday at Indian Wells, the No. 7 seed Del Potro just kept power-driving his huge forehand and giving Djokovic little to work with by slicing low backhands cross court, or occasionally down the line.

“He deserved to win because he was more composed in the important moments and he played the right shots,” said Djokovic, who was in the post-match press conference within minutes of his defeat, offering no excuses. “His fighting spirit and my lack of concentration were two factors in the turnaround in the third set. I didn’t use my backhand along the line as I usually do. It’s one of my best shots. Today I just wasn’t there. It happens. It’s sport and I just didn’t make it this time.”

Djokovic had no problem figuring out the tactics of a man he had beaten four times since losing to him in the bronze-medal match in the Olympics last summer on Wimbledon’s grass. It was just that he couldn’t overcome them.

“He has a very flat forehand and his tactics are to stay in the backhand corner and run around the forehand," Djokovic said of Del Potro. "He is basically inviting you to play on his running forehand, which he uses as a big weapon.”

Del Potro agreed that his forehand was a decisive factor. “I think the difference between Dubai (where he lost to the Serb in straight sets last month) was that I remained very aggressive on my forehand when it became very close in the third set,” he said.

Earlier, the roar that greeted No. 5-seed Nadal’s 6-4, 7-5 victory over sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych echoed back off the Santa Rosa mountains as some 14,000 acclaimed the return of one of the most popular figures in world sport.

There were plenty of South American voices ringing out with shouts of “Rafa!” But the man is universally loved and his supporters were thrilled to see the way he was able to move on his frail knees and punch the ball off both flanks with all his old power and fervor.

Berdych, a tall Czech who hits the ball just about as hard as Del Potro, served for the second set at 5-3 after a Nadal double-fault had cost the Mallorcan his serve, but Rafa struck back immediately with a trademark, forehand winner. Inevitably Berdych tightened up and was pulling off his forehand instead of hitting through the stroke as his big weapon fell apart in the 11th game, when he was broken again to leave Nadal serving for the match.

To his credit, Berdych kept fighting and Nadal had to come up with big serves to save two break-back points before closing it out on his second match point.

Nadal was obviously thrilled to have reached the final for the fourth time at Indian Wells, having previously won the title twice (2007, 2009).

“It’s very, very difficult to imagine something like this,” he said. “It’s not easy coming back after an important injury. It is difficult to understand how to manage the important situations. Even if I had a lot of success the last few weeks (winning in Sao Paulo and Acapulco on clay), I was very nervous at the end of the match, trying to close the match, and I was lucky that my serve worked amazing in the last game.”

Berdych had made the same point about Nadal’s serve.

“I think the biggest difference was in the second set at 5-3,” he said. “Since that time, I served only one first serve and he served only one second serve. That was the biggest difference today.”

For all the talk of Nadal not relishing play on hard courts, Indian Wells has always been an exception for him.

“I feel like home here,” he said. “I feel very comfortable at this tournament. I feel very happy here. It is more relaxing than other tournaments and that gives me a positive feeling.”

A third title here and a third title out of the four tournaments since his comeback would be a remarkable achievement for this exceptional competitor. But, if Del Potro still has any gas left in the tank, it won’t come easily for Rafa Sunday afternoon under the desert sun.