When the year began, it would have been hard to imagine that the Indian Wells final would be an all-Swiss affair. Federer was just getting his legs, literally, back under him after seven months away, while Wawrinka had never reached even the semifinals of this tournament.
It would have been even harder to believe that the matchup could have implications for who finishes the year No. 1, but that’s where we are after two months. On Saturday, the current No. 1, Andy Murray, announced that he won’t play in Miami next week due to an elbow injury. That news came as the current No. 2, Novak Djokovic, returned to his hometown of Monte Carlo to have his own elbow checked out. There’s a chance that he won’t be in Miami to defend his title, either. Federer has obviously started the year well, with a win at the Australian Open, and he leads the ATP’s Race to London. Wawrinka has also been solid, reaching the semis in Melbourne and now the final in Indian Wells. For both men, a title here, and the 1000 points that come with it, could come in handy during the scramble for the top spot at the end of the season.
So who stands a better chance of getting it? Federer is the favorite. He’s 19-3 against Wawrinka, and has won their last three meetings, two of which were in Grand Slam semis. He has also played brilliant tennis this week. Rather than looking like “vintage Federer,” he has shown us something new: a powerful, full-cut topspin backhand that he’s been cracking for winners to both corners. While Federer played the later match on Saturday, he shouldn’t feel too strained physically after getting a walkover in the quarterfinals. On the whole, it’s Wawrinka, winner of two third-set tiebreakers, who has spent more time on court.
Does Wawrinka have one more winning effort in him? When he makes an escape early in a tournament, he’s often a danger to go all the way; once Stan believes, it’s hard to make him not believe again. This will be the 31-year-old’s first final in Indian Wells, but that shouldn’t be a hindrance, either. Each of his three major-titles victories came in his first trip to the final of that event. For Wawrinka, nothing happens, and then everything happens.
During those three Slam-winning runs, Wawrinka has only had to face Federer once, in the 2015 French Open quarterfinals. There he was able to impose his will from the baseline for three straight sets, and that will have to be the template for him in Indian Wells. He’ll want to test Federer with hard, heavy, and possibly high balls as early and often as possible. If he plays anything like he did in his semifinal against Pablo Carreño Busta, he has a chance.
Of course, Federer is not Carreño Busta. The last two times he faced Wawrinka, he was able to get inside his friend’s head by varying his play. At the U.S. Open in 2015, he rattled Stan with an early SABR attack on his serve and went on to win in three easy sets. At the Australian Open in January, Federer surprised Wawrinka on a key point in the fifth set by going high, rather than hard, into his backhand. Again, Stan never recovered.
What trick will Federer have up his sleeve this time? The way he’s been playing, he might not need one.
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