Indian Wells 2016: Former champions Djokovic and Nadal survive stern tests

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are both through to the third round of the Indian Wells Masters

Marianne Bevis
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Before the stars of the draw, the two former champions at the first Masters of the year, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, made their opening appearance on Stadium Court, fellow seeds were romping through their first matches all across the magnificent Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner, Feliciano Lopez, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Dominic Thiem—not a dropped set from any of them. Some had it particularly easy: Roberto Bautista Agut did not play a game after Mikhail Youzhny pulled out with sickness, and unseeded Fernando Verdasco advanced without completing a set after Martin Klizan retired with a foot injury.

That last result was a significant one, too, for Verdasco was next lined up to play compatriot Nadal, and their decade-long rivalry had acquired some edge.

After losing his first 13 matches against Nadal, the 32-year-old left-hander and former No7-ranked Verdasco scored his first win—in his home city of Madrid in 2012. After a three-year break, they met again, most recently in a thrilling five-set battle at the Australian Open—and Verdasco won his third match in their four last meetings.

Another noteworthy opening match on first Sunday was won by No27 seed, Philipp Kohlschreiber, who took just 45 minutes to surge past Denis Kudla for the loss of just one game. The elegant German next faces Djokovic, who he has beaten only once, way back in 2009, but it meant he would be fresh for his latest tilt at the world No1.

And amid this plethora of straightforward wins for fellow players in the top half of the draw, both Nadal and Djokovic had their work cut out.

Nadal’s opponent, Gilles Muller, can certainly be a challenge: the big powerful left-hander from Luxembourg has an equally big, powerful game, but Nadal had got the better of him in three of their four previous matches.

And make no mistake, Indian Wells has been a happy hunting ground for Nadal: three times the champion and once a runner-up, he has a 44-8 record. So it was no surprise that the 32-year-old Muller made few inroads in the first set. The Spaniard broke twice and took the set, 6-2.

Cue comeback: Now it was Muller who broke, three times to Nadal’s once, to levelled the match, 6-2. But when the going gets tough, fans can rely on Nadal to fight back. He raised his first-serve level to 81 percent, and dropped only one point on his six second serves. He pounced on his third break chance in the final game to take the match, 6-4, after almost two and a quarter hours.

As he pointed out, his last three losses this year—that Australian tussle with Verdasco, his semi against Thiem in Buenos Aires and the semi again Pablo Cuevas in Rio—all went to a deciding set: “Very happy for the victory after my last three matches that I’ve lost in three sets or five sets… So I needed a victory like this.

“Especially the last two games of the match were very important, obviously. I was able to play more aggressive with more determination. That’s something that stays in my mind and is very positive.”

But he admitted that he needed to find another level against Verdasco: “I need to play better in the next match. I play against a tough opponent [who] beat me in Australia this year.”

If Verdasco plays like he did then, it will be match worth watching.

It proved to be just as awkward an opening for defending and four-time champion Djokovic, who has been all but crowned champion for a record fifth time this year by many tennis enthusiasts. For such has been his form and achievements in the last 12 months that he has made himself close to unbeatable. He beat Roger Federer in the last two finals in Indian Wells, where he now has a 41-6 tournament record, and has reached the semis or better in seven of his 10 appearances, including the past five.

That is not all: Only an eye infection halted a 12-month unbroken run of finals dating back to winning the Australian Open in 2015 and ending with a repeat at this year’s Australian Open—a span of 17 finals and 13 titles.

So when he was drawn against a qualifier in his opener, the 149-ranked American Bjorn Fratangelo, it looked a cake-walk: The 22-year-old had scored just his first tour-level win in beating Teymuraz Gabashvili in the first round.

But soon jaws were hitting the floor as Fratangelo broke in the opening game, broke again in the third, and fought off break point in the fourth for a 4-0 lead. In no time at all, he had the first set, 6-2: Twitter was in meltdown.

But like a few other players, Djokovic had arrived in the warm, dry but breezy Californian desert after playing Davis Cup on Belgrade’s indoor courts, where he played three back-to-back days, singles and doubles, and his match against Mikhail Kukushkin was a five-hour marathon—though it ended in victory for Serbia.

So there was some adjustment to be made, and unlike many of his colleagues, Djokovic opted out of the doubles draw here. But of course, adjust he did. He sailed through the second set, 6-1, and although the American pulled back an early break in the final set, Djokovic ground out another break in the fifth game and did not look back: 6-2, in and hour and three-quarters.

He was quick to credit Fratangelo, while critical of himself: “I must admit that he has played really good tennis, especially in the first set. He came out with a good game plan, knowing what to do.

“I started awful. Haven’t played really great except in the second set… Today is one of those days where you don’t feel the ball well. It was swirly conditions, and just being tough. Trying to win with experience and with toughness in the clutch moments. That’s what helped me to prevail.

“All in all, it was just not a great performance. But, you have to deal with it, accept it. A win is a win. Hopefully the next one will be better.”

That next one is against a rested Kohlschreiber: Expect Djokovic to start with a bang.

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