Even when you’re talking about one of the greatest rivalries in modern sport, not every meeting can be a classic. Tonight’s encounter between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will not go down in history as one of the most memorable of their 29 meetings, but in this chapter, it’s Nadal who emerged victorious, beating Federer solidly, 6-4, 6-2, to move into the Indian Wells semifinals and pull ahead in their much-discussed head-to-head, now leading 19-10.
Nadal will also leave the court with much to be encouraged about in regards to his comeback from a long injury lay-off, most notably that his movement was excellent despite self-described ‘so-so’ knees, and that his backhand was by and large very strong. Hitting through the court powerfully and aggressively, Nadal’s backhand was probably the strongest facet of his play despite a poor spell in the second set. It was crucial in his dominance of baseline rallies, which in turn was crucial to pressing consistently on Federer’s serve while protecting his own with relative ease.
After Nadal set out his stall in the first point of the match with an aggressive forehand winner (set up by two solid backhands), he pushed to deuce, 40-30, and then break point in Federer’s first three service games. While the latter was saved with an ace, Nadal held to love easily to lead 4-3 before pegging Federer back to deuce (from 40-15) with a return that hamstrung an attempted serve and volley, followed by Federer sticking a forehand in the net. A couple of oddly lackadaisical points from Federer saw Nadal take his third break point with a thoroughly confident backhand pass.
While Federer served at a thoroughly respectable 65 percent for the match, both his first and second deliveries were noticeably slower than usual. It was in his lateral movement, however, that the effects of the back injury he suffered against Ivan Dodig earlier in the week were most clearly visible. While Nadal has the gift of making his opponent’s side of the court seem so much larger than his own, Federer tonight was returning anything wide with a defensive slice, including some truly odd drop shots. The Swiss scrapped out a tough hold to force Nadal to serve for the first set, but couldn’t deny him on his own serve, as Rafa took the opener in 46 minutes.
Racing to a double-break lead after a pair of gorgeous forehand winners, Nadal wavered and Federer’s attack sharpened enough, earning a break point at 3-0. Nadal’s backhand lost accuracy for a spell and Federer took the break, then found a couple of serves big enough to set up a forehand winner on the second shot for his easiest service hold of the match for 2-3. It was a temporary reprieve. Two backhand unforced errors and a wild volley allowed Nadal into his next service game, and a break point was duly converted after another backhand error. A double break up once again, Nadal served out the match in unceremonious fashion, leaving Federer to begin a long-scheduled break until Madrid while his own comeback continues apace.