INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – ”Feels like [it] happened 100 years before.”
That was Rafael Nadal’s response to questions about the last time he played Roger Federer before the semifinals of a tournament. He was off by nearly an order of magnitude of 10. When the two face off on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET, Tennis Channel, ESPN3) for the 29th time, in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open, it will mark the first time they’ve met before the final four of a non-round-robin tournament since 2004 at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami, the first match of their storied rivalry.
Here’s video of a sleeveless Nadal serving out the match for his first win over Federer.
A lot has changed. Then, a 17-year-old Nadal, ranked No. 36, took on a streaking Federer, who had just ascended to No. 1 for the first time after winning the Australian Open. Nadal made a statement with a 6-3, 6-3 win, debuting the game that would trouble the Swiss great through today. At the time Nadal said he played the perfect match, never facing a break point and sending a barrage of topspin forehands to Federer’s backhand, revealing the matchup issue that would allow Nadal to rack up an 18-10 record against the man many consider to be the greatest player of all time.
Here are 2004 Miami match highlights:
Nadal’s hair is now shorter, the sleeves longer. The two biggest stars of the game have gone from being the center of the tennis world to men with something to prove. Over the last two seasons, Novak Djokovic has served as the foil to both their careers, while Andy Murray, who could seize the No. 2 ranking from Federer at Indian Wells, soared in Nadal’s absence last year, winning the Olympics and his first major title, at the U.S. Open. The two are meeting in the quarterfinals because Nadal has slipped to No. 5 in the rankings for the first time since May 2005, meaning he would have to play one of the top four seeds in the final eight. It just so happened he landed in Federer’s quarter of the draw.
“In the past this match used to be a final, now it’s a quarterfinal, so obviously it’s a bit of bad luck of the draw for both of us,” Federer said after his 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-5 win over countryman Stan Wawrinka on Wednesday. “At the same time, it’s very exciting always playing each other. Doesn’t matter what stage of the tournament.”
When they take the court on Thursday they’ll have 28 Grand Slam titles between them, the most in tennis history between two men’s opponents. The last time they played was a year ago here in Indian Wells, where Federer, in the midst of what would be a three-title, 16-match winning streak, cruised to a 6-3, 6-4 victory in the semifinals on his way to the title. This year, Federer has yet to make a tournament final (let alone win one), and he comes into their quarterfinal with questions about his health after tweaking his back in the third round. He appeared to have difficulty bending on his serve and getting low for volleys against Wawrinka. Without a day off between matches, it’s hard to know how he’ll feel physically against Nadal.
“I’m hopeful that it’s going to feel a bit better again [Thursday],” Federer said.
While time may have caught up with Federer, it’s the sport that caught up to Nadal. His knees, worn down by not just the physicality of the modern game but the physicality of his modern game, finally gave out on him last year. He hopes that his seven-month break after his second-round loss at Wimbledon was enough. Not a press conference goes by that the status of his knees isn’t raised, and he said they were “so-so” in his hard-fought 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over the streaking Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round Wednesday. As is his tendency, Nadal played down his chances against Federer. He hasn’t won a hard-court tournament since Tokyo 2010, and he doesn’t think he’s playing well enough to beat Federer here.
“I don’t know if I am ready to do it,” Nadal said, “but we’ll see how I wake up [Thursday]. … I have to play aggressive to enjoy the match. If not, the match [is] not going to be good fun for me. I always play one way against Roger, but [Thursday] will be not easy to do this as I do all the time, because I need to move quick, especially on hard [courts] to do this kind of game, no?”
Said Federer: “We know what to expect, both of us. We are both a bit suspect going into our match, I guess, so it’s an interesting matchup.”