The concluding pair of quarter-finals not only boasted two former champions with the biggest and most passionate followings in tennis—and possibly in individual sport across the board—but had them pitched against two of the in-form players of the year so far, two big, powerful players feeling rightly confident in their games not just this year but over the last 12 months.
Nadal would take on the formidable Canadian Milos Raonic, a man who broke through the ranks early with a big game based on a huge serve and forehand but, still only 24, had continued to evolve other skills, particular in the front of the court and in his movement. It reaped rewards for this hard-working, intelligent player who no-one wants to find in their half of a draw.
This was his eighth quarter-final from his last 10 Masters, a run matched only by Federer over the same period—and he pushed the Swiss to the limits in the Brisbane final at the start of this year. He had yet to have his serve broken in this tournament, but if anyone could do it, that man was probably Nadal.
Three times Nadal has won in Indian Wells, despite his reputation as the Master of clay. And despite a second half to 2014 that played havoc with his body and his ranking, he was slowly but surely returning to that old form, honed by a great run on his beloved clay in South America, and now fine-tuned with each match in the desert.
Raonic had yet to get the better of the Spaniard, but their last meeting a year ago in Miami saw the Canadian steal the opening set before Nadal turned things around.
Federer, in what looked like the tighter match of the afternoon, took on world No9 Tomas Berdych, who won his 500th match on the way to the Dubai semis and, if he beat Federer here, would be the first man this year to reach 20 match-wins. For he had made at least the semis in all four tournaments this year, going on to the finals in Doha and Rotterdam.
Until this month, Berdych had been ranked between Nos5 and 7 for almost three and a half years, had not been outside the top 10 since he reached the Wimbledon final in 2010—where, incidentally, he beat both Federer and Novak Djokovic—nor failed to reach the World Tour Finals. He also beat Nadal in the quarters in Melbourne this year for the first time in 17 consecutive meetings.
And when it came to Federer, this was far from a foregone conclusion. The Swiss held sway in the early years of their 18-match, 11-year rivalry, but Berdych had won five of their last nine, two of the their last three. And though Federer had won their most recent match, the final of Dubai last year, he had to come back from a set down to do so.
Such was the scenario, then: Yes, Friday really did promise much—and Federer was the first to deliver.
It started evenly enough, both he and Berdych playing fast and free for four games. But then the warning lights flashed as Berdych made a couple of double faults and Federer sensed his time to attack for a first break point. The Czech held on, despite another double fault, by going to the net himself, but in the blink of an eye, Federer had held and Berdych was serving again.
And in another blink of an eye, a glorious backhand down the line winner from Federer took him to 0-40 and he broke at the second strike.
Federer’s first—and only—double fault of the match gave Berdych a sniff at 15-30 as the Swiss served for the set but Federer attacked with two great net points, and sealed the set, 6-4. He had dropped only one in 16 first serves points, and made only six errors to 14 from Berdych. It had, in short, been a near flawless 40 minutes of explosive, fluid and aggressive tennis, and Berdych had to hope Federer would go off the boil.
But he didn’t. The temperature continued to rise, Berdych looked increasingly flushed, Federer stayed cool but his tennis was hot from every corner of the court.
Federer broke the Czech’s baseline rhythm, now with a big looping forehand, then with a flat down-the-line forehand, now a chipped, low cross-court backhand, then a bullet of a backhand pass. And that was without the frequent chases to the net for the kind of volleying that would make his mentor Stefan Edberg smile.
A forehand-smash combo broke Berdych in the first game, a floundering Berdych double faulted to concede another break in the third—a measure of his despair written in serving that barely broke the 40 percent mark. It looked as though the Czech would hold on his next serve, but another dazzling Federer backhand down the line took the score to deuce, and two break points later, a Federer forehand winner finished the Berdych off.
All the while, Federer served impeccably, closing the 6-0 set with a love hold. This kind of offensive tennis often comes with a higher number of errors, but not this time. Federer played with patience and with confidence to make only 11 errors to 21 winners, yet with an impressive 13/14 points at the net.
It had taken just 68 minutes, but there would be few with the golden Friday ticket who would think themselves short-changed.
Berdych could manage a rueful smile as he left the court. Would Raonic find himself in the same position two hours down the line? And could Nadal set up a repeat of his semi-final here in 2012, the last time Federer beat him?
Indian Wells would have to wait and see—but Saturday promised to up the stakes to platinum if a Nadal-Federer semi joined the Djokovic-Murray semi in another blockbuster day of action.
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