Would the ‘Next Generation’, the focus of an ATP campaign ahead of Indian Wells, make inroads among the old hands? After all, eight players born in 1995 or later was already on the march and into the main draw. The most successful of the teenage wave, Alexander Zverev, indeed, make it to the fourth round, and bar a fluffed volley, would have reached the quarter-finals.
Or would ‘Generation 90’—the group of players born in the 1990s that had been tipped to penetrate the upper rankings for the last two years—step up?
The most successful of them, Dominic Thiem, arrived in Indian Wells with a new career-high ranking of 13 and leading the tour with match wins. The 22-year-old also reached the fourth round.
But it was in the bottom half of the draw that the oldest of the 1990s ‘team’ was making the most headway. No12 seed Milos Raonic reached No4 last year, and after some injury problems, he scored a big win over Roger Federer in Brisbane in January. In this week’s draw, he put paid to No17 seed Bernard Tomic, No6 seed Tomas Berdych, and No13 seed Gael Monfils—without dropping a set.
Born just 20 days earlier, David Goffin reached No15 last year, and already this year has beaten Thiem and a clutch of #NextGen names. This week, he had beaten No3 seed Stan Wawrinka—his first top-10 scalp—and then No10 Marin Cilic to reach his first Masters semi-final. He also had a win over Raonic to his name in their only previous meeting, a three-setter in Basel in 2014.
Aside from their age, though, Raonic and Goffin are like chalk and cheese. As the slight, light-weight Goffin has explained, he cannot out-hit big men such as the 6ft 5in, 98kg Raonic but instead depends on his speed, footwork and tactical nous.
However in the hot, dry conditions of Indian Wells, things looked to favour the big Canadian. Sure enough, his serve zipped and his forehand flew, and he broke to love in fourth game.
Goffin had little opportunity to make inroads in return—Raonic’s next service games featured a 146mph serve followed by a 135 ace. In the seventh, Goffin did get a break chance after Raonic double faulted on deuce, but that was as close as the Belgian got: The Canadian took the first set, helped by a 138mph ace, 6-3.
Raonic’s serve went a little awry in the second, and Goffin’s tactics began to work a treat as he produced precision hitting to both wings, came to the net, sliced some crafty returns. He almost broke the Canadian in the second game, and did break to love in the fourth with a couple of chiselled backhand passes and a volley winner. Raonic broke back, but again Goffin plied his down-the-line backhand to break in the eighth game and served out the set, 6-3.
In the decider, though, Raonic recalibrated the serve, dropping only two from 18 first deliveries. He broke in the second game, made two love holds, took it to 5-2 after making another 142mph ace, and after two hours, served out victory, 6-3.
He summed up the story of the match neatly: “I started off well, played true to myself, I went for my shots. I let him control a bit too much in the second set, and being my second time here, I tried to gain control back—went for it and it came together.”
Asked about his final opponent, he was equally direct: “I’ve played both [Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic] in a Masters final before so I definitely would like to change that storyline.”
This will indeed be Raonic’s third Masters final, and he lost out to Djokovic in Paris in 2014, and to Nadal in Montreal in 2013.
But what of the second semi-final, arguably the most anticipated match of the tournament as soon as the draw was made. This would, after all, be the 48th chapter in the most played rivalry in tennis, and the first one since Djokovic took a 24-23 lead in their head-to-head in Doha at the start of the year.
Both men arrived with outstanding records in Indian Wells: Djokovic a 45-6 tally and four titles; Nadal a 48-8 tally with three titles. They had played each other here only three times, with Djokovic winning the last five years ago—and Nadal had gone on to win only one of their last 10 meetings, at Roland Garros in 2014.
This time, in the gruelling heat of the afternoon, and on a hard court that suits the Spaniard as well as any on the tour, it looked like a different story.
Djokovic came under pressure first, looking less than his flawless self in the early stages. Nadal broke at the first attempt for 2-0, but the Serb hit straight back, and from then on he gave Nadal little wriggle room despite an unusual tally of errors. By 3-3, Nadal had made just six to Djokovic’s 13, but the Spaniard came under heavy pressure in the seventh 10-minute game, eventually saving break points.
It remained tight all the way to a tie-break, with each again defending break points. Now Djokovic drew first blood and led 5-2, but Nadal pulled off his signature running forehand pass to level for 5-5. The Serb, though, was clinical in closing out the set, 7-6(5), but with twice as many errors as winners.
Nadal continued to battle hard, here and there pulling off forehand winners as only he can, and picking up drops with remarkable athleticism. But the writing was on the wall: In the second 11-minute game, he faced five deuces, in the fourth seven-minute game, three deuces.
In the sixth, he could hold back the tide no longer, Djokovic broke, and although Nadal bravely fought off five break points in the eighth game, Djokovic broke to take the match, 6-2, after almost two intense hours.
Nadal, then, seems to be finding his way back to his old form, but that is still, currently, not enough to beat the best man in the world. Will Raonic fare any better? The improving Canadian has beaten both Nadal and Federer—now he faces the ultimate yardstick.
For the moment, Nadal holds a record 27 Masters titles, but should Djokovic go on to win a record fifth title in Indian Wells, he will draw level with Nadal’s 27. The Serb has yet to play his best in this tournament, but then he usually saves his best for last.