Nadal has avoided hard surfaces as he has tried to rest his left knee that has been afflicted with tendinitis.
After a tentative comeback at two clay court tournaments where the ground is more forgiving, Nadal made his debut at Indian Wells a winning one.
Nadal nervously fell behind 20-year-old American Ryan Harrison in the first set, then the fifth-seeded Spaniard came back to win 7-6 (3), 6-2.
Nadal had white tape wrapped below his left knee and he fell quickly behind Harrison 4-1 in the first set. But just as quickly, Nadal, hitting harder and harder, began pounding his ground strokes into dark corners where Harrison could not reach.
“It was OK,” Nadal said. “I am very happy.”
Harrison said that after he jumped into the lead, Nadal began finding the range, first with passing shots.
“I was throwing him off rhythm a little bit,” Harrison said. “Then he started passing better.”
In Saturday's final match, Urszula Radwanska upset 15th-seeded American Sloane Stephens 6-3, 6-4.
Earlier in the day, Roger Federer had been a perfect antidote to another American, John Isner.
Whether a fan of Isner's one (big)-note tennis or not, it was frustrating to see 15th-seeded Isner, who was a finalist at Indian Wells last year, swat forehands into the net, backhands into the desert and watch his shoulders slump lower and lower after every shot.
So it was a brilliant bit of scheduling to have defending champion and second-seeded Federer follow Isner onto Stadium 1.
After Isner's emotionless 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4 upset loss to 32-year-old, 98th-ranked Lleyton Hewitt, Federer came out and played tennis both precise and elegant; both hard-hitting and delicate.
Federer, 31, had little trouble eliminating 43rd-ranked Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, 6-2, 6-3.
It was a moment to catch a tennis breath in the middle of a jampacked schedule that included fourth-seeded David Ferrer losing to big-serving South African Kevin Anderson, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3; upcoming young American Jamie Hampton upsetting 20th-seeded Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan, 6-3, 6-3; and top-seeded and defending women's champion Victoria Azarenka advancing past former top-five player Daniela Hantuchova, 6-4, 6-1, even though Azarenka was playing with crisscrossed black tape on her lower left leg.
Istomin played with sunglasses on even though it was mostly cloudy late in the afternoon on the big Stadium 1 court. Maybe he didn't want to really see the sweet beauty of Federer's game.
But this second-round match was only about watching Federer place tennis balls in corners and on lines, as if he was just dropping them with his gentle hands and not walloping them with a tennis racket.
“It felt good from the start and I was able to maintain that level of play,” said Federer, who will next play Ivan Dodig of Croatia. Dodig had never won a match at Indian Wells before. Now he's won two and will have a chance against a man who has won this tournament four times including last year.
Hewitt won this tournament in 2003, a decade ago but now the Australian mostly seems to be hanging on even though he has a U.S. Open and a Wimbledon title to his credit. But he's had five surgeries over the last four years, and Hewitt is barely inside the top 100 in the world.