The singularly arresting Rafael Nadal has always loved the hard-court conditions at Indian Wells. While some players struggle to find their range off the ground in the desert air and lack the backcourt control they find in other places, the Spaniard with the heavy topspin artillery seems right at home in California. It is no accident that he has captured this Masters 1000 tournament three times, prevailing in 2007, 2009 and 2013. When he is healthy and confident, Nadal is always going to be a serious candidate to take the title. Based on what I have seen so far from the world No. 2 in his three contests this time around, Nadal has a good chance to come through and claim the crown for the first time in six years.
Today, Nadal confronted Serbian Filip Krajinovic. The 27-year-old had reached the round of 16 as a qualifier with an impressive run, winning 10 sets in a row altogether, upending No. 20 seed David Goffin and No. 14 Daniil Medvedev in his last two matches leading up to Nadal. But Krajinovic knew full well that he was stepping into another league altogether when he walked on court with the redoubtable Nadal. The 32-year-old had opened with a tailor made confrontation against Jared Donaldson, dropping only two games in that one-sided contest.
Facing the dogged Diego Schwartzman next, Nadal was locked at 3-3 against an ever-tenacious adversary, a fellow regarded by many observers as the “Little Big Man” of tennis. Thereafter, Nadal masterfully moved his adversary around the court, making Schwartzman play too many balls from above his shoulders on his backhand side. Nadal secured nine of the last 10 games to claim a resounding 6-3, 6-1 victory.
Losing only six games in four sets en route to his appointment with Krajinovic was evidence that Nadal was striking the ball well and taking care of business ruthlessly and efficiently. And yet, he had never played the Serbian before. Be that at it may, it did not take Nadal long to figure out how to proceed.
He was down 0-30 in the opening game of the match before collecting four points in a row for the hold. Nadal broke in the second game. Serving at 30-40, Krajinovic pulled Nadal wide to the forehand. Rafa went crosscourt with his heavy topspin, and Krajinovic netted a forehand as he tried to go to the open court. How many times has that pattern been repeated over the years? Opponents think they have to make the perfect shot because they know Nadal can punch holes into their hearts with his passing shots on the dead run.
Nadal had the immediate break and then swiftly held at 15 for 3-0. From his 0-30 deficit in the first game, Nadal had won 12 of 15 points. However, Krajinovic was not overly intimidated by his renowned rival. He held in the fourth game and then broke Nadal in the fifth. The Spaniard was up 40-30 but Krajinovic controlled that point convincingly, approaching deep to the backhand, putting away a backhand volley cleanly. He attacked again to force a sliced backhand passing shot error from Nadal, and then his pace of shot rushed the Spaniard into a backhand crosscourt error. Nadal had held serve 43 consecutive times since losing the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic before.
Krajinovic was back in business, serving at 2-3, looking considerably more composed. Yet Nadal met that moment honorably, raising his game decidedly in the sixth game. On the first point, he came forward unhesitatingly, but Krajinovic sent a passing shot at his feet. Nadal replied to that with a delicate backhand half volley down the line, keeping it deliberately short and low. Krajinovic answered with a fine passing shot crosscourt, but Nadal on the full stretch punched a low forehand volley down the line for a winner.
Nadal went on to break at 15 for 4-2. Moving to 5-2 at the cost of only one point, Nadal concluded that excellent seventh game with a dazzling forehand winner up the line. Two games later, serving for the set, Nadal held at love with an ace down the T. The set had gone to a purposeful Nadal 6-3. He had been the decidedly better player.
Serving at 1-1 in the second set, Krajinovic was ahead 40-15, but Nadal’s penchant for playing every point with the same deep and unrelenting intensity took him to break point. Krajinovic stayed in this exchange commendably, fending off some telling blows from his highly charged adversary, refusing to cede any ground. But ultimately Nadal found an opening for an inside out forehand winner, breaking for 2-1 after that bruising exchange.
Nadal held at love for 3-1 with utter clarity of mind, concluding that game with a winning forehand down the line. After Krajinovic saved a break point with an ace out wide in the fifth game and subsequently held on, Nadal played another stellar service game, serving an ace out wide in the ad court for 30-0, holding at 15 with another barrage of forehands leading to an inside out winner off that side.
Ahead 4-2, Nadal had Krajinovic at 0-30 in the seventh game, but his forehand went awry for the only time in the match. Four unforced errors from the Spaniard allowed his opponent to hold on, but Nadal did not despair. He held at 15 with two aces for 5-3. Serving for the match in the 10th game, Nadal held at 30 with a classic wide-serve forehand and down-the-line winner combination on his second match point.
By virtue of his comfortable 6-3, 6-4 triumph, Nadal moves on to the quarterfinals. In the second set against Krajinovic, Nadal won 20 of 24 points on serve, taking all seven points on his second serve. That was impressive. He will be seriously tested in the quarters, but Nadal in this form is the clear favorite to beat whoever he faces next. Once Nadal is through to the semifinals, the view here is that there will be no stopping him. The one man that he feared in this field was the fellow who took him apart so comprehensively in the final of the Australian Open, but, fortunately for Nadal, Djokovic is gone. Nadal likes his chances against anyone else, and he has played his way remarkably well into the heart of this tournament without taking much out of himself.
We are heading into the homestretch of Indian Wells. Rafael Nadal remains staunchly in the hunt for the crown, determined to take this title for the fourth time, and eager to give himself an immeasurable confidence boost with the clay-court circuit not far ahead of him. He is poised now to recapture some of his most inspired tennis at a time of the year that is so often advantageous to him. In my view, Nadal is ready to raise the stakes again, to play the game again unimpeded by injuries and largely on his own terms, to shine once more on some of the premier stages.