The first and biggest Masters of the year had already showcased some of the best of the new—from the class of the 1990s and the class of the rising teens.
In the former group, Dominic Thiem, the most prolific match-winner this year and at a career-high No13, took on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; Federico Delbonis, who had beaten two seeds this week, including Andy Murray, faced Gael Monfils; and former-top-five Canadian Milos Raonic, back from injury and thriving, played Tomas Berdych.
One of their number, David Goffin, seeded 15, had won two titles from five finals in the last two years, but was finding the next big step a real challenge. He had only beaten one top-10 player on the main tour in 26 attempts, and came to his meeting against No3 seed Stan Wawrinka on a losing run of 14 and with a losing head-to-head of 0-3. It would, though, be a cracker of a match.
The early stages set the tone, with the nimble Goffin playing cleanly and Wawrinka mixing winners with wayward errors. The Belgian took an early lead, Wawrinka pulled back a break, but Goffin broke twice more to take the set, 6-3, and consolidated with an opening love hold in the second.
Wawrinka broke his racket over his knee after conceding an easy break in the second, only to offer up yet another break for 0-4.Then the momentum shifted in this seesawing drama.
Wawrinka broke back, fought off another break point in the sixth game, and broke again. Now all square, Goffin hit back with another break to serve for the match at 5-4. Wawrinka again burst into life and battered his way through four straight games, tying up the set, 7-5, with a love hold.
Still there were twists and turns: Wawrinka double faulted to concede a quick break, Goffin held to love for 4-1, and played superbly to hold off an attacking Wawrinka for 5-2. But with exactly two hours on the clock, the Swiss broke through with a couple of stunning forehand winners, held to love, and had Goffin in all kinds of trouble with three break points in the 11th game. However a tie-break would decide this knife-edge contest.
Wawrinka took a 4-2 lead, had the first match-point, but in a shot that will give him nightmares for weeks to come, hit an easy smash long to bring up match point, and obliged with a netted forehand to give Goffin victory, 7-6(5), after two and a half hours—his first ever win against a top-five player.
As fate would have it, Goffin now plays another man who ended an important top-10 losing streak. No10 seed Marin Cilic halted an 11-match losing streak that dated back to his 2014 US Open victory, beating Richard Gasquet, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2—having also failed to serve out the match in the second set.
But in a day of repeated déjà-vu moments, the most memorable—and heartbreaking—one for the sole remaining teenager in the draw, Alexander Zverev, came in what promised to be one of the matches of the tournament.
The charismatic young 18-year-old arrived in Indian Wells having taken the scalps of Cilic and Gilles Simon during the indoor swing. This week, his big, rangy game was catching the eye of many more as he scored wins over first Grigor Dimitrov and then Simon again. Now he had a first tilt at the three-time Indian Wells champion and No4 seed Rafael Nadal.
The Spaniard, though, relishes the conditions at this particular tournament, such that he had built a 46-8 record here after defusing the power of Gilles Muller and then Fernando Verdasco this week. But even Nadal had spotted the talent and potential of Zverev, describing him ahead of the match as “a possible future No1”.
Did that faze the tall, mature young German? Apparently not.
Zverev pounded a backhand return-of-serve winner to break in the fifth game, and despite being distracted by the spider-cam, served strongly to hold for 4-2. He fought off break point in the eighth game, too, but Nadal’s level was on the rise, and he broke as Zverev served for the set with a down-the-line winner.
The German almost got the break back, until a Nadal net-cord drizzled over to claim the 14th of the last 20 points. It would take a tie-break, but although Nadal had two set-points via some dazzling exchanges, it would be Zverev who converted his second chance with an ace, 7-6(8).
The second set was a near wash-out for Zverev, as tension and perhaps some accumulated fatigue from a heavy few weeks’ on court, saw him unable to handle a now-pumped Nadal playing some of his best tennis of the year. It took just 26 minutes for Nadal to level the match, 6-0, with just one error for eight winners.
But if he or the packed court thought Zverev was a spent force, they were quickly disabused. With admirable focus, the German held with two aces and broke with a big forehand winner, 2-0.
Just as quickly, Zverev handed the break back via two double faults, but compensated with another break, this time holding for 4-1. Had the teenager converted his break chance in the sixth game, that may have been curtains for Nadal, but he could not. Having then fended off break point in the seventh game, he now served at 5-3, but on match-point, Zverev netted an easy smash, and a netted forehand later, Nadal had the break.
The Spaniard’s bristling energy was now in stark contrast to the weariness of Zverev. He attacked the German’s growing number of second serves and, helped by two double faults, he took the lead for the first time since the opening of the match. A love hold, completing 15 of the final 16 points of the match, sealed a euphoric win for Nadal, a devastating defeat for the teenager, after more than two and a half hours.
Zverev afterwards admitted: “I missed probably the easiest shot I had the whole match… It was a great match. Rafa did what he does best. He was fighting; He’s known for that. I still had chances to win. I had an easy shot at match point and I missed it. I’m out and he’s in the quarter-finals.”
Nadal still has a tough road if he is to reach his 100th final. Next up is Kei Nishikori, who survived his own two-hour-10-minute marathon in beating John Isner, 1-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(5).
Then comes the near-impossible challenge of four-time and defending champion, Novak Djokovic, who sailed past Feliciano Lopez, 6-3, 6-3, in a scant 65 minutes. The Serb first plays Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Thiem, 6-3, 6-2.
And completing a hat-trick of match-losing smashes, Tomas Berdych obliged on match-point to hand Raonic the win, 6-4, 7-6(7).
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas