INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — After another day of big serves and topspin forehands in the desert sunshine, just about everyone appeared to get what they wanted: a 39th match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The question is, will it actually happen?
Federer, despite being the elder at 37, looks readier to rumble. Between Dubai and Indian Wells, he has won nine straight matches and 15 straight sets and artfully and uneventfully dispatched the unseeded Hubert Hurkacz, 6-4, 6-4, in Friday’s first quarterfinal of the BNP Paribas Open.
But Nadal had to dig much deeper to wriggle free of the firm grip and aggressive game of Karen Khachanov, the brawny young Russian who pushed him hard in the third round of last year’s United States Open.
This time, Nadal prevailed, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), but only after Khachanov stretched him repeatedly with huge serves and whipping forehands and only after Nadal needed on-court treatment and tape for pain in his long-troublesome right knee.
And there lies the problem with planning your day or, depending on the time zone, your night around watching No. 39.
Nadal remains one of the greatest, in-the-moment competitors in any sport, but his recent record in hardcourt tournaments is a downbeat litany of withdrawals, retirements and anticlimaxes.
It remains an open question if he will feel hearty enough to play Saturday afternoon’s semifinal. He does not have a day off to recover. He also has the rest of the 2019 season to consider, including his sacrosanct season within a season on clay that is scheduled to start next month in Monte Carlo.
“Of course my goal and my idea is to be ready for tomorrow,” Nadal said after pursing his lips and shaking his head.
But he also knows from long experience with patellar tendinitis that being ready is no sure thing.
“I cannot guarantee how I will feel when I wake up tomorrow,” he said. “But the desire to play a match like this against Federer is always very special, and it’s even more special if we’re both at a high level and at 100 percent. Hopefully it will be that way, above all for me but also for the fans on site and for fans in general. I hope I will be able to play aggressively. I need to be ready to react very quickly and to have everything in place to be able to succeed. If not, it will be very difficult.”
Nadal and Federer first played in Miami in 2004, but they have not met since October 2017, when Federer beat Nadal in the final of the Shanghai Masters. Federer went 5-0 against Nadal in 2017, a resurgent season for both men, after upgrading his ability to attack with his single-handed backhand.
That run of success has narrowed the big edge that Nadal once held in their rivalry; he now leads by 23-15.
“I don’t think those five matches matter that much, to be honest,” Federer said of the 2017 victories. “A lot of time has gone by, unfortunately maybe for the rivalry for us, or for me. It’s always better to keep on maybe playing against him.”
Federer started this season by failing to retain his title at the Australian Open but has responded by going on a roll. After winning his 100th career title in Dubai, Federer is now two victories from his 101st. To get there, he may first have to deal with the man who has been his friendly rival for 15 years and who remains a friend: The two had coffee at Federer’s rented home last week to discuss the state of the tennis world.
“Different styles, different ways to understand the sport,” Nadal said. “And at the same time, two players with a good relationship after all the things that we went through in our careers, competing for the most important things.”
In his first match against Hurkacz, a rangy and powerful 22-year-old from Poland, Federer looked loose from the start as he tested the full range of his skill set.
There was the usual: wickedly sliced backhands, blocked returns and first serve-forehand combination punches. There was also the unusual: chip and charge tactics, serve-and-volley on second serve and no-look flicked backhand overheads.
But it will be hard to be quite so relaxed and experimental against Nadal, whose ability (when healthy) to extend rallies and take command of them with his left-handed, topspin forehand is an entirely different, though much more familiar, challenge.
The two did not play any of the same regular ATP Tour events in 2018, and they did not face off in the three Grand Slam tournaments that they both played: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open.
Federer was asked if, after all these years, the matchup with Nadal still gave him more of a thrill than facing an unknown rising player.
“I think a combination,” he said. “If it was only Rafa, I wouldn’t enjoy that as well. I think having the mix is the magic really for me. Playing against young guys to eventually get to Rafa, that’s exciting.”
It was quite an achievement for Nadal to get past the 22-year-old Khachanov. He was visibly hampered by his knee trouble, which first required treatment on court with Khachanov leading by 2-1 in the second set. Visibly slower and unable to push off as powerfully with his legs to serve, he still found a way to grind and win.
“It’s a special victory considering the way I was feeling,” Nadal said.
Playing with pain has unfortunately become close to the rule on hardcourts for Nadal, who has long complained and warned about the physical toll of hardcourt play.
Nadal, 32, conceded that part of the problem was playing more than 1,100 matches in his career, not just playing on hardcourts. But he also pointed out that other sports tended to be played regularly on grass or on other more forgiving surfaces.
“I love to play on hard, but probably my body doesn’t love it that much,” he said. “And my feeling is there are a lot of players that love to play on hard, true, but their bodies don’t love to play on hard, either.”
He is also concerned about the price he and others might pay in retirement. “When I see some old legends walking around the tour,” he said, “it’s tough.”
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