INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Saturday was a great day to watch tennis at the BNP Paribas Open, but a confounding one for anyone trying to create a coherent storyline about the state of the men's game.
In the first semifinal here, Rafael Nadal beat Tomas Berdych to reach the final of the first hard-court event that he has played in nearly a year. As Rafa made his seemingly inevitable way back from 3-5 in the second set to close it out, the words “same as it ever was” began circling through my head. Even after all of that time away, Rafa, and by extension the Big 4, still reigned supreme, while Berdych, and by extension the second-tier, were doomed to eternal failure in the clutch.
The words were still lodged in my head a few hours later, as the second semifinal, between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, reached the halfway point of its final set. By that stage the world No. 1, after a few fits and starts, was doing what we expected him to do: Leading del Potro 3-0, and running the big man ragged in the process.
But just when all appeared right and normal in the ATP, when a doubled-over del Potro looked ready to depart with honor, and a confident Djokovic appeared ready to take his place in what many people here were calling a “dream final” against Rafa, something happened. Something very strange happened. Was it, perhaps, divine intervention? After all, from Rome to Indian Wells, Argentines are getting used to having their prayers answered this week.
Earlier in the tournament, Del Potro had expressed his approval of Pope Francis I, formerly of Buenos Aires.
“I think he’s gonna do his work perfect,” del Potro said. That was obviously good news for the player, who described himself as “very Catholic.”
By today, though, del Potro sounded a little skeptical about whether the new Pontiff had really taken the time to help him through his upset wins over Djokovic and Andy Murray here.
“I talk a lot about the Pope [already],” del Potro said when the subject came up again. “I would like to enjoy my moment.”
Divine intervention? Maybe not. But we could call del Potro’s run to the final a case of divine in-vention. After an early-round match, he said that he was protecting his surgically repaired right wrist by using his slice backhand more. He went to it often against Murray, and even more so today. In the past, del Potro has had trouble matching up against Djokovic— he couldn’t hit through him, and he couldn’t out-rally him. But the slice backhand enabled him to stay in points longer and maneuver himself into position to hit his knockout forehand, which was clicking today. What started as injury prevention could end up giving del Potro’s fairly straightforward power game a new wrinkle.
“I used it a lot,” del Potro said of his slice, “because that helps me to play more aggressive with my forehand and try to do different things. That helped me to beat Murray yesterday, today Nole.”
Still, Del Potro said he didn’t think he’d unveil it quite as often against Rafa tomorrow. For logical reasons: “He’s a lefty,” he said, “and he moves really, really fast on the baseline.”
As for Djokovic, he arrived in the press room so quickly afterward that he still appeared to be breathing hard. In the few minutes that he was there, he told us that he didn’t think his third-set collapse had much to do with God or the Pope or anyone else.
“I just didn’t deserve to win today,” Djokovic said, scratching his head in exasperation. “[Del Potro]'s fighting spirit and my lack of concentration,” were what did him in, Nole believed. “Whenever I had chances, second, third set, I threw them away with some unforced errors. My movement was poor, and I congratulate my opponent.”
Djokovic said his backhand down the line, “one of my best shots, just wasn’t there.”
“It happens,” he said, “it’s sport, and I just didn’t make it this time.”
This is the first time that Djokovic didn’t make it since the fall; it marks the end of a 22-match win streak. As he said, a few things that normally happen for him didn’t happen today. He nearly made one of his trademark white-knuckle comebacks in the second set, rallying from 2-5 to 4-5, but he put a backhand into the net at set point. In the third set, down 4-5 again, he reached 30-30 on del Potro’s serve, only to make another uncharacteristic backhand error into the net.
Djokovic had been up and down through the week, and had trouble sustaining his good play. He won the opening set 6-0 over Fabio Fognini, then lost the second set; he bageled Sam Querrey in the first, then scraped out the second 8-6 in a tiebreaker; and he was the beneficiary of four double faults by Grigor Dimitrov when the Bulgarian served for the first set.
Still, Djokovic made it to within a couple of games of the final, and if del Potro hadn’t cracked a 133-m.p.h. ace at match point, he might have pulled off another miracle. Novak says he’s going to take a couple of days off and move on to Key Biscayne. That should be good news for his fans. Last year he was beaten, on a 135-m.p.h. ace, by John Isner in a close match in the semifinals here. Then he took a couple of days off, moved on to Miami, and won the tournament.
“It’s very, very difficult to imagine something like this,” Rafael Nadal said after his win this afternoon, “but here were are today.”
Did anyone imagine that Rafa would reach the final in Indian Wells after so much time away, and so much trepidation about hard courts? I did, actually; or at least I picked him to make it to Sunday in my preview of the tournament. I don’t usually mention when my predictions turn out to be right, because then I would be honor-bound to tell you when they turned out to be wrong, and there’s only so much time in the day.
I mention it because I don’t think it should be that surprising to see Nadal play this well or go this far here. Federer and Djokovic each said much the same thing this week; today, after losing to Rafa, Berdych was asked if the Spaniard's game had “changed in any way”—his answer was a definitive, “No.”
Coming in, Rafa had played what by his own account was some of the best clay-court tennis of his life—and by extension anyone’s life—in blitzing David Ferrer in the final in Acapulco. And while this event is played on a hard surface, it's one where, as Rafa said today, “the conditions adapt very well to my game.”
“I feel like home,” he said of Indian Wells and the desert climate. “I feel very happy when I'm here. Is more relaxing tournament than other ones, and probably that gives me a positive feeling.”
I can remember watching Nadal arrive here in a slump in 2007 and win the tournament; and even after his “accidental” defeat to Ivan Ljubicic in the 2010 semis, he came away feeling good about his play and his progress. He knew what he was talking about: Rafa would win the next three Grand Slams. If Monte Carlo is the place where Rafa returns to dominance, Indian Wells is often where he starts feeling good about his year.
That said, today was the best we’ve seen of him in Indian Wells. His dive-bombing topspin was back, and it gave even the 6’5” Berdych fits. Nadal had his crosscourt backhand working, and he was a step and a thought ahead of Berdych on all of the big points. And, as Nadal said, his “serve worked amazing in the last game.” He fended off three break points at 6-5 in the second set, all with service winners. As for his returns, while he stood far back in the court, it was a tactical decision. From there he could generate the huge looping lefty topspin that he knows the Czech doesn’t like. The more the wind did with the ball along the way, the better.
But what was most Rafa-like was the way he responded when Berdych went up 5-3 in the second set. From that point on, the two players’ games went in opposite directions—Berdych was as bad as Rafa was good.
“The biggest difference" in the match, Berdych said, "was in the second set when it was 5-3. [After that], I served only one first serve, and he served only one second serve.”
Nadal talked today about the mental challenges of coming back. He said the biggest difference is that when you’re playing tournaments regularly, you’re so dialed in that you don’t have to stick to your routine tactics. You’re flexible enough to change them up to suit the moment. You’re also used to having things go wrong over the course of a match, so you tend to recover from adversity quickly. So it makes sense that Rafa was especially happy with the way he played from 3-5 down in the second set.
“To be able to forget [getting broken],” he said, “and be able to be focused on the next game, on the first point of the next game, and finally do the right things to [get] back in the set, was decisive.”
“I play my best game of the match at 3-5, playing very aggressive, have two very, very good points with my forehand down the line.”
Same, in other words, as it ever was.