INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—At the start of this tournament, few expected to see it end with a final between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro. Nadal was just getting back into the game, and del Potro, while he has been very good for a long time, didn’t appear to be on any particular roll. He had been upset early at the Australian Open, and at his last event, in Dubai, he lost in straight sets to Novak Djokovic.
On the other hand, a final in Indian Wells between these two seemed inevitable at some point. They played in the quarters here in 2009, and the semis in 2011, so why not the final in 2013? Nadal won those earlier matches, 6-2, 6-4 and 6-4, 6-4, respectively. Is there any reason to think that del Potro can change that pattern today?
In their 2011 semi, the Argentine had success dictating baseline rallies, but Nadal neutralized him by going high to his backhand side and taking his power away. That strategy also worked for Rafa against Tomas Berdych yesterday, so it’s easy to imagine him trying to create a similar dynamic in the final—looping dive-bombs to the backhand, and flatter, quicker shots to del Potro’s forehand. After straight-set wins in the quarters and semis, Nadal should be fine physically for another afternoon in 90 degree heat.
Will del Potro? He played considerably more, and more taxing, tennis in beating Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on Friday and Saturday. But during the third set yesterday against Djokovic, as he stood doubled-over with the temperature close to 100 degrees, I thought he was toast. He proved me wrong by rallying to play some of the best tennis of his career over the next seven games. So don’t count him out on conditioning grounds alone. Still, the big man is not going to want to find himself in a similar position in a third set against Nadal today, when it’s supposed to be nearly as hot. The first set means more to del Potro than it does to Rafa.
The overall head to head between these two is 7-3 in favor of Nadal. The last time del Potro won was at the U.S. Open in 2009, when Nadal was hampered by an abdominal tear. But their last two matches, played on grass at Wimbledon and clay in Davis Cup in 2011, were entertaining and competitive four-setters. One reason for del Potro’s success this week has been his slice backhand. He began using it because he was nervous about his surgically repaired right wrist, and it has since turned into a new weapon.
Unfortunately, it may not be the right weapon for Nadal. Yesterday del Potro said he would likely use it less often against Rafa, because it would go into his forehand side. Still, I think it’s worth trying, because it will stay low and could be effective against Nadal’s Western forehand. Whatever happens with del Potro's backhand, though, it's his other ground stroke, his forehand, that will have to do the heavy damage. He's been hitting it extremely well, and he can't afford anything less today. Working that shot to Nadal's backhand, rather than letting the reverse happen, will be key.
Whether you're looking at past results, the current physical conditions of the players, or their stature in the sport, the signs point to a Rafa win today. But few picked del Potro in his last two matches, either. It’s Sunday, del Potro says he’s “very Catholic,” and the Pope is from Argentina. The ultimate question may be: Will God be watching ESPN this afternoon?
The Pick: Nadal in two sets