INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—When did we know this one wasn't going to be a classic? For a journalist friend and I sitting in the stands, the moment came right after Roger Federer walked onto the court. There was thunderous music, there was the roar of his name from the MC, there was the booming ovation from the full house, and then there was Federer himself...walking very slowly to his seat.
“He looks a little heavy footed, don’t you think?” my friend said. As much as I wanted to disagree, I couldn’t.
Earlier in the week, Federer had tweaked his back near the end of his third-round match against Ivan Dodig, and it hampered him tonight. He pulled up on wide balls, had trouble stretching for volleys, and, except for a couple of good attacking games in each set, looked stiff in general.
Asked about his back afterward, Federer did his best to downplay it. “Same as against Stan [Wawrinka],” he said. “ I mean, I could play. I’m happy to be out there and able to compete. But obviously it’s a small issue. That doesn’t work against guys like Rafa obviously.”
Federer said his serve felt fine, and while it wasn’t clicking, it kept him in the first set. But Nadal’s superior shots aside, Federer did look more impeded than he had against Wawrinka. After going down a break in the first set, and two breaks in the second, Federer tried to change the dynamic each time by moving in on returns and taking more chances. It worked briefly, but he couldn’t sustain it.
“The longer the match went on,” Federer said, “I realized I had to change up my game. Obviously, once I was down a set I knew it was going to be difficult.”
(Tangential point: It’s commendable that Federer played this match, and every player should do everything he or she can do to be able to perform for paying customers. But it would be wrong to criticize Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur for withdrawing from their matches earlier in the day just because Federer didn't withdraw from his. I was, admittedly, irritated by Azarenka’s second pullout in four events this season, and judging from her history of withdrawals, it’s possible that she’s either overly cautious or self-centered or both when it comes to making these decisions. But there’s no way to know how her ankle injury compared to Federer’s back issue; they're separate.)
This won’t go down as one of the more meaningful installments of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Federer wasn’t 100 percent, and Nadal was still getting used to asphalt. Plus, not only was this not a tune-up for a Grand Slam—the next major, the French Open, is on clay—Indian Wells is likely the last hard-court event that either of them will play until after Wimbledon.
Yet it was still a good night for Nadal. Compared to his match against Ernests Gulbis yesterday, he was springier and more enthusiastic from the warm-up on, and he moved better during the rallies. As Federer noted, “he’s a bit careful at times” with his movement, but tonight we saw glimpses of the old Nadal magic—the no-backswing snap forehand pass, the sharp-angled backhand winners, and of course the heavy topspin crosscourt forehand, which Federer struggled to step into all night.
Nadal was happy with what he saw out of himself.
“I played a fantastic first set in my opinion,” he said after the 6-4, 6-2 win. “My movements were much, much better than what [they were] yesterday. What to say? Two weeks ago, I didn’t know if I can be here, and tomorrow I will be in semifinals here.”
If there’s one thing he’s not doing yet, Nadal said, it’s running around to hit his inside-out forehand as often as normally does. At the same time, I thought he moved well toward the forehand side. From a mental standpoint, this match brought Nadal back to the very center of the tennis action for the first time since his comeback began, and he responded with his usual competitive acumen. From 0-3 down in the second set, Federer tried to make a stand. He broke Nadal, held for 2-3, and went up 15-30 on Rafa’s serve. The scoreline of this match made it look easy, but these were anxious moments for Nadal, moments he didn't respond to all that well in the final of his first tournament back, in Chile. This time Rafa reacted the way he always had, by steadying himself after a few nervous shanks and going back to a very basic winning formula that he has always used against Federer—a swinging serve into the backhand. When Nadal held for 4-2, the last wind came out of Federer’s sails.
At the net at the end, Federer said to Nadal (roughly speaking), “Glad you’re back.” Nadal in turn asked, “How is your back?” The night had begun on a somber note, with Federer trudging to his chair, and it ended in similar fashion. How do you know when a match between these two wasn’t a classic? When the winner—in this case, Nadal—walks off the court with a frown on his face.