Not since the very start of their 35-match rivalry had former Indian Wells champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met before the quarter-finals of a tournament. That was a remarkable 13 years ago in the third round of the Miami Masters—where these two men will head next week.
Federer, age 22, had reached No1 for the first time on the back of titles in Australia, Dubai and Indian Wells, and would stay there until Nadal took over the mantle with the Wimbledon title in 2008. The Spaniard, still just 17 years old, was yet to break the top 30, would win his first title on the clay of Sopot later that year, but come the next year, he would win 11 titles, beat Federer at Roland Garros—and the rest, as they say, is history.
Each man has gone on to play Novak Djokovic more often, developing their own compelling plot-lines, but no other match-up has managed to capture the magic of ‘Rafa and Roger’.
And while many have tried to pin down just what captured the imagination—the contrasts in personalities, looks and playing styles all contribute—it perhaps comes down simply to the puzzle.
Federer could beat almost everyone and win everything, except when it came to Nadal. The bristling left-hander from Mallorca has never trailed Federer in their head-to-head, denied him time and again at the Monte-Carlo Masters, Rome Masters and the French Open, eventually beat him at Wimbledon, overtook him in the Masters titles leader-board, and built up a 23-12 advantage.
Even in Indian Wells, Nadal had got the last laugh, reversing Federer’s 2012 with victory the following year, the first of five straight wins through to Australia 2014.
Indoors, and in front of his home Basel crowd, Federer at last broke the run in 2015, though not without a tough three-set fight. And in Australia at the start of this year, the two superstars of tennis, after a 2016 punctuated by long injury absences, turned back the clock to contest another Grand Slam title, and again Federer triumphed.
That they would meet again so soon, and so early in the Indian Wells draw, was both good and not good. Having reminded tennis fans about their special chemistry in that five-set Melbourne thriller, the appetite for more had been sharpened—but this time, one would have to lose before the quarter-finals. The most bottom-heavy draw imaginable had seen to that.
But both duly pulled their weight to set their rematch, and the crowds came in their thousands. And there was probably not a fan who was not also acutely aware that the winner would, most likely, next face that other great rival, Djokovic, in the next round.
These days, though, with both men now in their 30s, there is another layer to their rivalry. The admiration for one another has always been there, of course, but that has grown into a friendship off the court. Only last October, with both men side-lined from competition and enjoying recuperative time at home, Federer travelled to Mallorca for the launch of Nadal’s tennis academy. They have joined forces in launching the Laver Cup—and may play doubles together as a result—and have exchanged exhibition events for their respective foundations.
Here, they beamed and embraced warmly during the coin-toss routine, and casually stepped over the net to begin their warm up—still smiling. But there was not much smiling once battle was engaged.
Federer, with game face on, stepped up from the first point, thumped a backhand winner, forced three deuces and finally earned a shanked error from Nadal to break.
Federer faced a break-back point in the next game, but a fine backhand volley winner and then a backhand down the line, consolidated the break, 2-0. Nadal’s game then kicked in as he fired off a love hold, but Federer replied in kind, beating Nadal with some vicious kick serves to the ad court and with the same aggressive backhands that had showcased his Australian victory.
Come the fifth game, it was again the backhand that wreaked havoc, undermining Nadal’s traditional go-to play. A bullet of a service return down the line from Federer and he broke, 4-1. With 34 minutes gone, the Swiss served out the set, 6-2, finishing with a serve and volley, his 15th winner of the set to just six errors.
Nadal gritted is teeth, and dug in for the second set with a love hold. Not to be outdone, Federer did the same, and piled on the pressure in the third game. Two off forehand winners and he had an early break.
Nadal got a love hold in the seventh, 3-4, but that would be his last hurrah. Federer broke him again, firing one last backhand return-of-serve winner onto the baseline for victory. It had taken just 67 minutes, and marked the first time in their rivalry that the Swiss had won three matches in a row.
So, after all these years, the puzzle’s pattern seems to have shifted. No longer is it Federer trying to get to grips with the bounding top-spin balls pummelled at his one-handed backhand. Now it is Nadal trying to work out a new way through the zip and variety of Federer’s aggressive tactics that now feature an offensive backhand able to withstand the Nadal pressure.
The Swiss afterwards talked of the evolution:
“I think all my coaches throughout my career have told me to go more for the backhand, but I used to shank more. So maybe deep down I didn’t always believe that I had it in the most important moments. But I think that’s changing little by little, which I’m very happy about.”
However, the challenges do not stop here, for Federer is only into the quarter-finals. He next plays not Djokovic but Nick Kyrgios, and will be hoping for another turn around: the young Australian won their only previous match in Madrid in 2015.
Federer said of the 21-year-old who scored his second win over Djokovic in as many weeks:
“I’m very impressed him taking out Novak, back-to-back weeks, on Novak’s best surface. I hope it’s going to lead to something great for Nick… When it matters the most against the best and in finals, he’s there … Of course, I’d like to get him back!”
In the top of this half of the draw, Kei Nishikori continued his seamless run to the quarters via Donald Young, and has yet to lose more than seven games in a match. He will next play Jack Sock who, in contrast, has played three three-setters, two of them containing a tie-break.
In the top half, No3 seed Stan Wawrinka looks favourite to reach the final, but has No8 seed Dominic Thiem up next, who took out Gael Monfils, 6-3, 6-2. In the top quarter, veteran Pablo Cuevas scored a surprise win over David Goffin in three sets, and will play Pablo Carreno Busta for a place in the semis.
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