The story of the Big Three so far in 2019 had gone like this: Novak Djokovic was taking back his No. 1 crown, and was going to be unbeatable forevermore; while winter was gradually settling back in for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, after their six-month Indian Summer of 2017 and 2018. And that may be how the season turns out. But one of the beauties of tennis is that not every day goes according to the master plan. Today at Indian Wells was one of those days. Nadal and Federer were very, very good; Djokovic, not so much.
Rafa kicked off the men’s matches on Stadium 1 against Diego Schwartzman. The Argentine was 0-6 against Nadal, and at 5’7”, 141 pounds, he looks like the kind of guy who may go 0-20 against him by the time it’s all over. But anyone who saw the way Schwartzman made Nadal work at last year’s French Open—he was the only player to take a set from the 11-time champ—knows that he has the shot-making skills to put at least a temporary scare into Rafa.
Maybe that’s why Nadal, who mentioned the quality of their previous matches, looked so determined not to let his friend make any inroads in their rallies. You could see from the start that Rafa was in a mood, and in a groove, and he stayed in both of them until his 6-3, 6-1 win was complete. He flicked forehand winners on the dead run. He pounded his returns with no sign of hesitation. He measured his forehand drop shots with flawless nonchalance. He hit with too much depth, too much height, and too much pace for Schwartzman. Even at those moments when Nadal typically gets nervous—hitting service returns at break point; trying to close out insurance breaks—he stayed loose. Rafa should go into his fourth-rounder against Filip Krajinovic with maximum confidence on Wednesday.
And so should Federer. If Nadal was at his best from a ball-striking perspective on Tuesday, Federer was at his best from a tactical perspective in his equally brisk, equally one-sided 6-3, 6-4, 59-minute win over Stan Wawrinka.
Every time Wawrinka lingered far behind the baseline, Federer either snuck in a drop shot or snuck in to net himself. Every time Wawrinka tried to attack his second serve, Federer put the ball in the most difficult possible spot to hit a return. When Wawrinka smash an easy overhead, Federer was right there to reflex it back. While an amped-up Wawrinka tried to pummel the ball too early, too hard and too close to the lines, Federer deftly moved him up and back with slice backhands and angled forehands, and finished points with drop-volley winners and half-volley winners.
Within that delicate onslaught, though, one indelicate Federer shot stood out. At 5-3 in the first set, Wawrinka hit a crosscourt forehand that sent Federer wide of the singles sideline. It was clear, as he ran to track the ball down, that the court behind Federer was going to be wide open for Wawrinka. Most players in that situation would go for an all-or-nothing rifle-shot down the line. Instead, Federer drilled his forehand safely down the middle, right back at Wawrinka, but with just enough extra pace that it took him by surprise. It worked; Wawrinka framed a backhand wide. Pretty much everything worked for Federer on Tuesday, against a very familiar opponent. On Wednesday, he’ll go up against an opponent he has never faced, Kyle Edmund.
In between Nadal and Federer came Djokovic. On this day he was as ordinary, or sub-ordinary, as they were extraordinary. It had been 10 years since he had lost to his opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, but apparently there’s a second time for everything, because the 35-year-old German walked away from a surprise 6-3, 6-4 win.
“It was one of those days,” Djokovic said later, and that sums it up well. From the start, he was unable to get any depth or penetration on his shots. As hard as he swung, as loudly as he grunted, as much of his body as threw into his swings, the ball kept landing in the middle of the court and sitting up for his opponent. Djokovic poked at his down-the-line backhand tentatively and sent regulation drop shots five feet wide, and when he got good looks at forehands, he overhit them.
At the same time, Kohlschreiber, who was coming off a satisfying win over Nick Kyrgios, was there to take advantage. Kohlschreiber moved Djokovic wide to his forehand side, then hammered his own forehand down the line for a winner; later he did the same thing from the backhand side. His one-handed backhand topspin got up above Djokovic’s shoulder and made him uncomfortable. And Kohlschreiber had an unerring ability to wrong-foot Djokovic and leave him spinning his wheels at mid-court.
Djokovic will be better; this was his first tournament since the Australian Open six weeks ago. But this afternoon was about Kohlschreiber. After nearly two decades on tour, he recorded his first win over a world No. 1, and the rush of emotion showed in his leaping fist-pump afterward. One of the beauties of tennis is that there will be surprises like this, and one of the beauties is that, every so often, good, unassuming, under-appreciated—and amazingly talented—players like Kohlschreiber get to make them happen.