INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — In a match that failed to live up the hype, Rafael Nadal rolled over an injured Roger Federer 6-4, 6-2 in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday. Nadal improved to 19-10 against his longtime rival and advanced to his seventh consecutive Indian Wells semifinal, where he’ll face Tomas Berdych.
A few thoughts on the match:
• Rafa’s back: I was hesitant to buy into the notion that Nadal had returned to his top-five form even after he dominated David Ferrer 6-0, 6-2 in the Mexican Open final two weeks ago. Sure, he played great and beat a top-five player, but that was on clay, the surface he rules with an iron fist pump. But cooling off Ernests Gulbis in three sets in the fourth round here and turning around a day later to put in a strong performance against Federer is a resounding proclamation of his return to form.
“I played a fantastic first set, in my opinion,” Nadal said. “The second set was strange. The second set, I think Roger didn’t fight as usual. Probably he had some problems and he didn’t feel comfortable enough to keep fighting.”
It’s not just about beating Federer. The Swiss great was clearly hampered by a back injury that he sustained in his third-round match. So ignore the scoreline and the significance of another Nadal win over Federer. Just watch Nadal play. Watch him scramble wide and have the confidence to slide four feet on the cement. Yes, wince, too. But Nadal’s confidence in what his body can do and withstand on this court is evident in his play, and that’s a positive sign. He’s now 15-1 in his comeback and riding a 12-match winning streak.
“My movements today were much, much better than yesterday,” he said. “So I’m very happy for that, especially after a long match yesterday, to be able to compete well the next day.”
Nadal added: “I didn’t forget my tennis in seven months. But it is a big surprise for me to have these results. That’s the truth. It is for me a big surprise because I really was not able to practice a lot.”
To be tearing through draws with insufficient practice? That’s a scary thought.
• Same as it always is: This simple mismatch of Nadal’s heavy lefty topspin forehand pummeling Federer’s one-handed backhand until it breaks down is the same as it was when they first played against each other in Miami in 2004, and 10 years later, it continues to dictate their rivalry. Three points into the fourth game, there it was, with Nadal controlling the middle of the court and sending a barrage of heavy topspin forehands to Federer’s backhand corner. Federer sliced the first one. He scrambled back to stab at the second one. On the third, he made a half-hearted attempt to get his racket on it and finished the point with his head cowed. Point, Nadal. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Asked whether Nadal played any differently against him Thursday compared to the previous 28 times, Federer deadpanned, “He played totally different than the last few times I played against him.” Federer paused and then let the room in on the joke. “No, it was the same thing,” he said with a smirk. “Yeah.”
Will we ever see another great Nadal-Federer showdown? Their last memorable match was the 2009 Australian Open final, the match that reduced Federer to tears during the trophy ceremony. Since then, their head-to-head has been relatively even, but the matches haven’t been great. Add to that the fact that Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal at a Grand Slam tournament since 2007, and it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the best of this rivalry is in the past.
• Sorry, Tomas Berdych: Berydych continued his strong season with a straight-set win over Kevin Anderson to make his first semifinal at Indian Wells. This season, he’s never lost before the quarterfinals of a tournament and is coming off back-to-back finals in Marseille and Dubai. Unfortunately for him, he won’t be facing Federer, whom he’s owned on hard courts over the last three years. “I think everybody knows who I would prefer to play,” Berdych said. No kidding. He hasn’t beaten Nadal since 2006, losing 11 straight matches on every surface.
• Andy Murray’s shot at No. 2: With Federer’s loss, Murray can overtake him for the No. 2 ranking if he reaches the final. Tough ask for the Scot, who hasn’t been great all week and he may have to get past Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. But that would be one heck of a way to get back into the top two.