These two have a history, and that past has been about as comforting as kissing a cactus for Berdych.
Nadal has used his heavy topspin, shifting angles, and superior accuracy on the run to deconstruct Big Berd, winning 12 of their 15 meetings, including 11 in a row. Berdych’s last win over the seven-time French Open champion came nearly seven years ago in Madrid, when that tournament was still a hard-court event.
The good news for Berdych is all three of his career wins over Nadal have come on hard courts. More foreboding for the 6’5” Czech is the fact that Nadal has won 30 of the last 32 sets they’ve played, and he hasn’t managed to break the Spaniard more than twice in a match during this slide of 11 straight losses.
Of course, the first step to solving a predicament is admitting it exists, and Berdych did that in summing up the problems Rafa poses.
“With his lefty hand and heavy spins, it’s very tough, especially in these [slow] conditions,” Berdych said. “If it's going to be hot like this it could be very, very tough one. But one day I hope that I'm going to find the way how to beat him again, and why not here?”
Indeed, if you’re looking for rays of hope on desolation row, consider that Berdych has won 13 of his last 15 matches, reached successive finals in Marseille (losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) and Dubai (losing to Novak Djokovic). He's played some of his most authoritative tennis of the year this week, winning four matches without surrendering a set.
Berdych must have a tremendous serving day and take the first strike, because once the rallies are neutral, Nadal has the edge. The fifth-ranked Spaniard can beat Berdych to the ball, has more margin on his shots, probes the court more thoroughly, and he carries confidence from career-long success in the desert. Nadal is playing his eighth straight Indian Wells semifinal, owns a 38-6 record here, and has collected two singles and two doubles titles in the California desert.
Ultimately, Berdych must make this a hitting contest and try to prevent Nadal from creating running rallies. The slower hard-court and searing conditions favor the physicality the agile 11-time Grand Slam champion brings to court. Berdych has identified the problem, but knows that solving it will not be easy.
The Pick: Nadal in two sets
(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (7) Juan Martin del Potro
Head-to-head: Djokovic leads 8-2
Del Potro has not lost serve in his last two matches; Djokovic has not lost a match since he donned a Darth Vader mask on court before a Halloween defeat to Sam Querrey.
The force is usually with the 6’6” Argentine, whose flat blasts make him one of the hardest hitters in tennis. When he's timing his shots corrrectly, del Potro doesn't just drive his forehand with authority, he detonates that shot with such force that the yellow felt seems to splatter against the court.
Rather than relying solely on his flat blasts, del Potro mixed it up against Andy Murray teasing the Scot at times with the slower slice backhand before tormenting him with his forehand in a 6-7, 6-3, 6-1 quarterfinal victory that was just his second win in seven matches against the reigning U.S. Open champion.
Playing for his second trip to a Masters 1000 final, del Potro will probably have to play a near-flawless match against Djokovic, who has won 13 Masters titles, including two Indian Wells championships. Del Potro has beaten Djokovic in big matches before, including in the Olympic bronze-medal match last July, but since that loss Djokovic has beat del Potro four straight times, winning nine of 10 sets in that span.
The world No. 1 is quicker to the ball, more effective changing up spins, and more versatile in his court positioning: He can drop back and defend when he needs to, and step up to the baseline and attack when he chooses. Del Potro must serve exceptionally well, control the center of the court, and try to land some of his down-the-line daggers to threaten. The 2009 U.S. Open champion has held in 38 of his 41 service games in this tournament, but the elastic Serb is the most dangerous returner in the game—he’s converted 17 of 38 break-point chances en route to the semifinals.
This could be an entertaining match, but Djokovic is riding a 21-match winning streak, is undefeated on the year, the slower court conditions should favor him. Del Potro can pose problems for anyone, but the undefeated Djokovic is playing at a higher level than the rest of the pack.
The Pick: Djokovic in three sets