Longtime Rafael Nadal fans know the drill well. One moment their player looks perfectly fine, competing with his usual full-tilt intensity and enthusiasm. The next moment, they look up and see that one of his legs has been taped below the knee, and he’s struggling to move.
That’s the painfully unpredictable nature of Nadal’s ailment, patellar tendinitis, which flared again in the second set of his quarterfinal against Karen Khachanov at Indian Wells on Friday. Nadal had come back from a break down to win the first set in a tiebreaker. As he had all week, he was seeing and hitting the ball exceptionally well, and he had raised his game at exactly the right moment, winning the first-set tiebreaker 7-2 behind a flurry of winners—forehands, volleys, and smashes.
Nadal’s continued at that level through the first three games of the second set, until he reached break point on Khachanov’s serve at 1-1. During the ensuing rally, rather than taking a final step to get in position for a forehand, he lunged at it and sent it long. We found out why a few minutes later, when he limped to the sidelines, stretched his legs against the net, and called the trainer.
By the time Nadal came back out to serve at 1-2, his right knee was taped, his service speed had dropped 10 m.p.h., and he had stopped running for balls in the corners. A likely win, it seemed, was about to turn into a defeat, and a much-anticipated semifinal against Roger Federer was about to be derailed at the last second. Each time Nadal walked toward his chair for a changeover, everyone in the stadium waited to see if he was going to call it a day.
But as so often happens when a player is injured, his opponent was equally affected, and equally disturbed. Serving at 2-2, Khachanov misfired on a series of forehands and was broken. While he would get that break back in the next game, an opportunity—to build a lead, and to further discourage Nadal—had been lost. As the set progressed, Rafa’s movement, and his spirit, returned. After saving a set point at 4-5, when Khachanov sent a half-volley wide, Nadal again lifted his game in the tiebreaker. For a second time, he came up with a flurry of winners—volleys, smashes, forehands, passing shots—to close out a 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) win.
The last four sets that Nadal and Khachanov have played, dating back to their brutally-fought third-round match at last year’s US Open, has ended in a tiebreaker. Rafa has won them all, and it wasn’t hard to see why today—he has so many more options.
While he has been accused of playing a one-dimensional baseline game in the past, Nadal was the player who closed out big points at the net, who finished with volley winners and overhead winners, who found a away to attack, rather than defend, when it mattered, and who put the ball at Khachanov’s feet on passing shots. Khachanov served brilliantly—he made 86 percent of his first serves in the first set—and came within a point of sending the match to a third. But when he was forced to try that delicate half-volley on set point, he couldn’t do it. When Nadal broadened his tactics and changed things up in the tiebreakers, Khachanov couldn’t answer with any new looks of his own.
Afterward, Nadal’s celebration was muted. He plays Federer tomorrow afternoon, but the more important moment may come in the morning, when he wakes up and finds out how his knee feels. When he faced Khachanov at the Open, Nadal also played with his right knee taped. He survived to win two more matches, including a classic against Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals, before having to retire in the semifinals. We’ll see how long Rafa can last in Indian Wells. When he faces Federer, an opponent he has lost to five straight times, we’ll also see how well he can play.