With the top two seeds in the bottom half of the draw failing to make the quarter-finals, it was the most-played rivalry in tennis between these two stars in the top half that whetted the appetite as the tournament reached its climax.
Each had to overcome just one obstacle apiece to set up the dream semi-final, two classy top-10 players in the shape of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kei Nishikori.
Even so, the odds were stacked in the former champions’ favour. Djokovic had beaten Tsonga in 12 of their last 13 matches, the Frenchman’s only win in that run coming in Toronto in 2014. Nadal had lost to Nishikori only once in eight matches, also in Canada last year.
First up were Nadal and Nishikori, who had both got here by the skin of their teeth, who had both saved match-points in their fourth-round matches. But fortunes sometimes can turn on a sixpence.
Had Nadal not saved five set points in a tense tie-break against Fernando Verdasco in his second match, he would not have faced 18-year-old Alexander Zverev in the fourth round.
Had Zverev put away an easy volley as he served for victory, things would also have been very different: Nadal would again find himself questioned about his in-and-out form, and would be back to the drawing board in Miami next week. As it was, he powered his way to the quarter-finals after two and an half hours.
And had Nishikori not stood remarkably firm through his own long three-setter after losing the first set 1-6 and gone on to win two tie-breaks against the huge-serving John Isner, he would also be in Florida by now.
Nishikori’s form this year certainly suggested he had the confidence and wherewithal to take the match to Nadal: a 14-4 run on hard courts with a title into the bargain in Memphis. In contrast, Nadal had lost in the first round of the Australian Open, and reached only one final in Doha. But the Spaniard has always relished the conditions at Indian Wells, such that he had built a 47-8 record here.
This battle to the semis, then, promised much. What it did not predict was such overwhelming dominance from the Japanese man in the early stages. Some superb, accurate ball-striking from inside the baseline had Nadal on his heels and fighting off two break points in the very first game.
In the third, he faced three more courtesy of a couple of blistering backhand down-the-line winners from Nishikori, who this time converted, and then consolidate on serve for a 3-1 lead.
Again in the fifth game, Nishikori had Nadal at his mercy at 15-40, but two errors and it was deuce. The Spaniard, serving clutch, held—and their fortunes turned on that sixpence. A very late challenge from Nadal was appealed by Nishikori but to no avail, his ball was shown to be out, and he faced break point. Nadal needed no further invitation and levelled things, 3-3.
It should not have disturbed Nishikori’s composure, but it did. Serving at 4-5, and having begun the match focusing on Nadal’s wide backhand wing, he now twice hit cross-court into Nadal forehand and the Spaniard made his signature pass.
If anything is guaranteed to inject passion into Nadal’s heart, it is the chase: He broke to take the set, 6-4, and Nishikori’s head slumped.
In truth, Nadal never again looked in danger, used his infamous lasso forehand to master the court, and with an hour on the clock, had a break and a 3-0 lead.
Nishikori fended off a break point in the sixth and scored a surprise break in the seventh, but Nadal was proving to be irrepressible: He broke again and served it out, 6-3, with—naturally—a forehand down-the-line winner.
No wonder he looked jubilant. Having closed out Zverev so pugnaciously, he had now produced some of his best tennis of the year, and was rewarded with his first top-40 win of the year into the bargain.
He was almost as delighted as the partisan Indian Wells crowd.
“He started so quickly, hitting all the balls very well and serving great. Then he started to miss some first serves, and I returned his second serves aggressively… My return was important. At the same time, my serve was enough good for this match.”
Indeed Nadal served at 88 percent on his first serve through the match. But the key was Nadal’s self-belief, and that too shone through his post-match words.
“I felt strong mentally. I had the right energy. I was able to fight for every ball. I was able to keep going during the whole match and believe in myself again, and that made me play with more energy and less nerves. That’s so important for me. It’s the way I’ve played my whole career. This week has been very, very positive.”
However, if Nadal looks confident, his semi-final opponent looks impenetrable: Djokovic is already 19-1 this year, his only loss coming as a result of an eye infection in Dubai. He is also 44-6 at this tournament and going for a record five wins.
Djokovic had to work hard to get by Tsonga, despite taking an early 3-1 lead in the first set. The Frenchman broke back to level at 5-5, survived a near-seven-minute game for 6-5, but over-reached himself too often in the tie-break. Djokovic led, 7-6(3).
Tsonga’s power game, particularly from his forehand, broke the formidable Djokovic defences in the third game of the second set, but a double fault handed the break straight back. The Frenchman saved two match-points at 4-5 with some brave strikes onto the line, but again could not live with Djokovic as they headed into a tie-break on the dot of two hours.
A seventh double fault took the Serb to 5-2, and Djokovic served it out his 20th win of the year, 7-6(2).
Nadal may have a record 27 Masters to Djokovic’s 26, but since Doha, he trails the Serb by one in their head-to-head, 23-24—and Nadal has managed to win only one of their last 10 meetings, at Roland Garros in 2014.
Nadal will be hoping his return to something like his old form will break that stranglehold and take him to a 100th final. The more likely outcome, however, is that Djokovic will continue his bid not only to claim a record fifth Indian Wells title, but draw level with Nadal on a remarkable 27 Masters titles.