INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Doing a compare and contrast between Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian on how they handle important moments in a match is the tennis-analyst’s version of shooting fish in a barrel. But let’s do it anyway, because the way they played three games late in the second set spelled the difference in Nadal’s 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over Nalbandian in the quarterfinals this afternoon.
The first of those games came with Nadal serving at 3-4. He had lost the first set 6-4 to a hot-hitting Nalbandian, a player who has troubled Rafa in the the past with his silky two-handed backhand and ability to take his topspin on the rise. The Argentine had finished the first set in glorious fashion, carving out a half-volley drop shot to get to set point and following it with a rifled down the line forehand winner. Now, seven games later, it appeared as if Nadal would never find an answer to him.
By the middle of the second set Rafa had 12 winners and 26 errors. The botches had come in bunches from each side: Three straight backhands into the net early in the set, then three straight forehand misses in another game. We had started the day talking about Nadal’s last quarterfinal here against Nalbandian, in 2009, when he had saved five match points. But this match was starting to remind me instead of last year’s final, when Nadal completely unraveled against another guy with a smooth two-hander, Novak Djokovic.
“I was too nervous, without any reason,” Nadal said later, despite the fact that he felt like he was hitting the ball well to start. “Nalbandian always gives me troubles.” In the past, Nadal has said that he has difficulty reading which way he’s going with his backhand.
The troubles peaked at 3-4. Nalbandian hit a penetrating backhand that Nadal failed to pick up; his own backhand went wide. On the next point Rafa drilled a forehand into the tape: 0-30. Nadal was unraveling fast...well, not so fast. He gathered himself at that point and hit two good first serves. At 30-30, he found the line, rather than the net, with a forehamd. He held with an ace.
Fast forward to 5-5, with Nalbandian serving at 15-15. Nadal had been hanging on by a thread; the Argentine was again two points from the match at 5-4, and Rafa hadn’t had a burst of energy all set. But he did now, running hard to his left and pulling a forehand back crosscourt and past a fooled Nalbandian. The moment seemed to stay with Nalby. Two points later, at 30-30, having earned an easy backhand, he tried a drop shot—I won’t even bother informing you that it was “ill advised”—that floated feebly into the net. On the next point, which was suddenly set point for Nadal, Nalbandian double faulted.
There we have our compare and contrast—it’s obvious who won the third set, right? Not this time. This time Nadal was trying to close out a tricky match for the first time since he didn’t close out the Australian Open final with a 4-2 lead in the fifth set. The nerves showed.
Nadal had rolled unopposed to a 5-2 lead over Nalbandian in the third; pushed around in the first two sets, he was the one doing the pushing from on top of the baseline now. But trying to serve it out, Rafa's shots began to land short. Then they began to land out. Then, before we knew it, he was serving at 5-4 and staring at double break point. Was this a new, nervy, post-Oz Rafa? Not quite, it turned out.
First of all, he was playing Nalbandian rather than Djokovic. Nalby obliged with another inexplicable drop shot error on his first break point. Second, Nadal had a deep well of wins to draw from. He took the second break point into his own hands with a good first serve, a strong forehand, and a spiked overhead. Rafa the closer had overcome Rafa the . . . guy who failed to close in Melbourne. It felt, as he let loose in celebration, like an important moment for him.
Now Rafa will have another in less than 24 hours. Saturday afternoon he'll get his 28th crack at Roger Federer. I’ll finish with a few quick thoughts on that one:
—It will be the first time they’ve played in the U.S. outside of Miami.
—It will come six weeks after Nadal escaped a hot start from Federer, a tight third-set tiebreaker, and break points while serving for the match on a similar surface in Melbourne. That match was also a semi, and it was also played after Federer had cleaned Juan Martin del Potro’s clock in the quarters, and after Nadal had had to raise his game to get past a hot-hitting head case—in Oz it was Tomas Berdych who played the Nalbandian role. In both cases, Federer came in cruising, while Nadal came in tested.
—Federer's recent virus could cut two ways. Physically, it might leave him tired if the match goes long, but mentally it might lower his expectations and free him from some nerves and self-imposed pressure.
—Fedal XXVIII will also, most interestingly, come with an edge. Before the tournament began, Federer mentioned Nadal’s name when he talked about players taking too much time between points. This week, as if on cue, the umps have cracked down on habitual slowpoke Rafa.
Since then, Federer has turned his attention to how slow he feels the courts are here—too slow. Nadal was asked about the surface speed tonight. He looked weary when he started his answer, but soon warmed to it. “Maybe next year they’ll be much faster, if Roger says, no?" Rafa said with a grin. "I have already this week a lot of time violations.”
Rafa-Fed, this time with friction? Now we're talkin'...