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INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - It was a case of so near and yet so far for Juan Martin Del Potro after he was denied a first ATP Masters 1000 title in a 4-6 6-3 6-4 defeat by Rafa Nadal in the BNP Paribas Open final on Sunday.
The Argentine was a set and 2-0 up on Nadal before the Spaniard came storming back to win a pulsating match that lasted just under two-and-a-half hours and featured seven breaks of serve.
Del Potro had been bidding to beat Nadal for only the fourth time in 11 career meetings but fell short as the Spanish world number five played near-perfect tennis in the latter stages.
"Rafa deserves to win," Del Potro told reporters. "He plays unbelievable for like an hour there. The last hour of the match he didn't make errors. He played so solid and put me so far to the baseline and make winners from there.
"Rafa played really well today in the second and third sets. He broke me early in the third and playing against him when the score is down is tougher, you know."
Del Potro had upset world number three Andy Murray in the quarter-finals and top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the last four to get to the final.
Asked whether he felt fatigued in the final after winning his two previous matches at Indian Wells in three sets, world number seven Del Potro replied: "Yeah, I played three sets against Murray then three sets Djokovic.
"But the finals are finals. They are special, and you get the energy from everywhere to play the finals. Rafa plays yesterday, also, so the conditions are the same for both players.
"I think my body was okay. Just he played better in the end and he deserved to win."
Despite his own disappointment in losing Sunday's final, Del Potro was happy for Nadal, who claimed his third title in his remarkable comeback from seven months on the sidelines due to a knee injury.
"Watching him in this level, he's playing really well. He's winning more than everyone after seven months (out)," said the 24-year-old from Tandil, who embraced Nadal at the end of the match.
Asked whether he felt Nadal was close to the form that earned him 11 grand slam singles titles, Del Potro replied: "Yeah, yeah. Like always, like in the past, he's playing so solid, so strong.
"He's very strong mentally. He has big talent, as well. He beat very good players here at Indian Wells. What I say the days before, he's gonna be fighting for the first position (in the rankings) very soon."
Del Potro, U.S. Open champion in 2009, knows exactly what he has to do to get back among the top four in the world.
"Beat Nadal, beat (Roger) Federer. Try to beat all of them," he said with a grin.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Peter Rutherford