<
>

The Roger Federer revival couldn't have come at a better time

MIAMI -- The forehand shot flew off Rafael Nadal's racket, spinning madly as it headed toward Roger Federer, who was standing at the baseline. More than a match point for Federer, it was a moving punctuation mark, a yellow dot, a period.

When it finally landed beyond the baseline to earn Federer the Miami Open title, it served as the punctuation mark at the end of the first segment of the tennis year.

You couldn't ask for the winter/spring hard-court swing to end on a higher note. Federer and Nadal amazed fans the world over with their parallel resurgence from injury. Although their rekindled rivalry stole the headlines, there was a lot more for tennis fans to feel good about as the tours packed up their North American tents.

The Miami final was their third meeting of the year, giving icon-aholics another full mug of greatness. After Federer won it 6-3, 6-4, he was asked if the win marked the official end of his "comeback."

"Yes, I would think so," he said. "The comeback is over. Still a comeback year, but I did say that until Miami, it was going to be still [a lot of] learning. It's been a dream run on the court -- off the court as well. My body has reacted very well, and I couldn't be happier."

Nadal also had reason to celebrate despite losing. He can look forward to his beloved clay-court segment with extra gusto. His own road back has been more laden with anxiety than Federer's because Nadal was mired in a slump when he left the game with a bad wrist last June. He returned prematurely during the summer and took off the entire fall to get healthy -- and to get his mentality right again. At 19-5, Nadal has the same number of match-wins as Federer this year, but he has lost three finals and won none.

"I think I am close to what I need to be," Nadal said. "I am at a very high level of tennis, and I believe I am ready to win titles. ... I'm playing well enough to fight for everything, I think."

The magical narratives spun by Federer and Nadal tend to overshadow how critical it has been for the sport to get off on a good foot this year. A year ago at this time, tennis was reeling, seemingly bouncing from one scandal to another. Last season began on a jarring note, with a widely publicized controversy over match-fixing. It hurt the ATP and WTA, even though the problem appeared restricted to the netherworld of minor league tournaments.

Then, in late January, Federer tweaked his knee while running a bath for his children the day after his Australian Open semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic. The injury required minor surgery; Federer returned in the early summer but pulled the plug on his year after Wimbledon. He didn't win a title all year.

March belonged to Maria Sharapova, but not in a good way. She tested positive at the Aussie Open for a banned drug, meldonium. She was eventually banished from the game for 15 months.

Then Ray Moore, the tournament director at the combined event at Indian Wells, created an uproar when he made some disparaging remarks about WTA players. In Miami, the bad news was declining attendance.

What a change a year has brought.

Federer and Nadal captivated in Australia, but the Williams sisters also got that old-time feeling. They met in the final, with Serena claiming an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam singles title.

The Miami men's finalists have claimed most of the attention, but Johanna Konta has emerged as a WTA force, while Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev took significant strides forward.

Zverev, just 19 and already ranked No. 20, won the second title of his career at Montpellier. Kyrgios, the 21-year-old hellion, is on the cusp of the top 10. He defeated Zverev in the third round in Miami 6-3, 6-4. It was one of the most entertaining matches in memory because the one thing tennis has lacked for years is a bombastic showman.

It has one in Kyrgios. Zverev doesn't mind hamming it up and working the crowd, either.

But a note of caution is in order. Federer and Nadal have carried the men's game on their shoulders like twin colossi. But tennis, particularly the Miami event, would have been in big trouble without them. Serena Williams was MIA with a bad knee. Andy Murray and Djokovic, ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, by the ATP, both withdrew from Miami, citing elbow injuries.

Both men are expected to be back in shape for the clay-court season, but as Federer and Nadal can attest, seemingly minor injuries can ruin the best-laid plans.

Minutes after the Miami final, Nadal was already chomping at the bit, eager to get onto his beloved clay. If invited, he might have run out and jumped on a clay court after a quick change of clothing. Nadal said he felt ready for his first clay event, the Monte Carlo Masters -- or would be, after his upcoming two-week break.

Nadal wouldn't come right out and say it, but he implied that if the three tournaments he played this year had been on clay, the results might have been different.

"Always when I am playing that well, clay always helps me a little bit more," Nadal said. "I am very excited about playing back on clay again."

Federer? Not so much.

The Swiss champ did not schedule any clay-court tournaments before the French Open. After Indian Wells, he briefly contemplated making some changes because of his spectacular success. His problem is he'll be giving up a lot of momentum if, as planned, he plays no competitive tennis until Roland Garros.

"I can still change my schedule so I don't regret anything," Federer said. "But I'm not 24 anymore. I have to pick my moments where I can peak and stay healthy."

He also revealed that his surgically repaired left knee acted "really strange" on the clay last year. It might have had more to do with the timeline of his recuperation than the clay, per se, he said, but he didn't want to take any chances.

Embarking on a Grand Slam quest without a warm-up tournament on the relevant surface might not seem wise. But it's hard to fault how Federer has planned, handled and executed his return from knee surgery.

"I told Severin [Luthi], my coach, when I was warming up that if I would've just played the Miami finals -- no Indian Wells, no Australian Open -- we would still be very happy right now," Federer said. "But I have way more."

Punctuate that one with an exclamation point.