Indian Wells 2019: Famed 15-year Federer-Nadal rivalry put on hold by Spanish injury; Federer and Thiem contest title
Roger Federer will play Dominic Thiem in the Indian Wells final after Rafael Nadal pulled out of the semi-final clash with an injury
Once upon a time, when a young Roger Federer was just beginning to make his name on the main singles tour, having won the first of his 100 titles in Milan before he turned 20, he was also a dab hand on a doubles court: He won two titles in that same year, 2001.
He would go on to win seven more doubles titles, most often with Max Mirnyi and Yves Allegro. And two of those titles were especially valuable. Most fans are familiar with the gold medal he won at the Beijing Olympics with Stan Wawrinka in 2008, but several years before, he also won the Miami Masters.
It was 2003, and Federer and Mirnyi could count wins over the Bryan brothers and then No1s Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor among their conquests, a 19-7 run, and all the while, Federer was also winning 78 singles matches, seven singles titles, among them Wimbledon.
It meant that, come 2004, now No1, and with his net skills well engrained, his doubles schedule had to be reduced—but not before the 22-year-old Federer faced a certain Spaniard across the net for the first time. Rafael Nadal was 17, had made his first main-tour final two months before in Auckland, and would win his first title come August.
Nadal already had a doubles title, the first of 11, and would make the semis of the US Open with Tommy Robredo—with whom he scored his first victory over a Federer partnered with Allegro—in Indian Wells.
Less than a fortnight later, the most renowned rivalry of their era began in earnest in Miami, their first singles meeting, the No1 in the world, Federer, against the No32 seed, Nadal, in the third round—and the first of what would become 23 wins over Federer by the then teenage Nadal.
Indeed, Nadal would prove to be Federer’s nemesis. The Swiss managed just nine wins in the 27 matches until they met again at Indian Wells. It took eight years, and was a win for Federer, one in his tally of five titles.
The next year, they met there again, and Nadal took his revenge against a Federer hampered by a back injury.
Four years later, it was their third tussle in the desert, and another win for Federer in a resurgent season that had also seen him beat Nadal in the final of the Australian Open. For after a long lay-off to recover from knee surgery, the Swiss had found time to re-groove his backhand—always his Achilles heel against the leftie Nadal with the huge kicking forehand—and used his powerful, top-spin drive to devastating effect. Indeed, having never scored more than two straight wins over Nadal, Federer now strung together five in a row.
Yes, Nadal, still held a big head-to-lead—and a five-year age advantage—but Federer, after years of trying, seemed to have found some kind of answer to Nadal’s dominance.
And that gave some extra spice to this latest contest, back at Indian Wells, 15 years on, and with both men still competing at the highest level: Nadal with a record 33 Masters crowns, Federer with a record 20 Majors, ranked Nos 2 and 4 respectively.
Add in that they had not met for almost 18 months, that neither man had dropped a set in this year’s draw, and the battle for an Indian Wells final place was a sell-out.
There was, though, a fly in the ointment: During Nadal’s quarter-final against No12 seed Karen Khachanov, the notorious knees of the Spaniard entered the equation. Many times before, repeated tendonitis problems had blighted Nadal’s career. In recent years, he also picked up hip and elbow injuries, such that he had missed eight Majors through the last 15 years.
Yet he assured the media that, ahead of Indian Wells, he had no pain, no problem. But after winning the first-set tie-break against Khachanov, he called the trainer and played the rest of his match in that old familiar style, with strapping beneath his right knee.
So even after Federer made his own way to the semis, there remained an air of caution, of uncertainty, over semi-final day. Nadal made it clear that he would wait to see how he felt when he woke up on Saturday morning—but the signs were not good when it was reported that his warm-up session was a mere quarter of an hour. Followers of the Spaniard know that, in practice, in warm-up, in match-play, he goes full out, no half-measures.
Sure enough, as the first semi-final got underway, the news came: Nadal could not play, and Federer was into his ninth Indian Wells final.
Nadal said after taking the difficult decision:
“As I said yesterday after the match, I felt that something happened in the knee. I wanted to try my best to be competitive today. I warmed up in the morning and I felt that my knee was not good enough to compete at the level that I need to compete, to play the semi-finals of this event.”
Of course, he has the longer game in view, and his beloved clay swing will begin in under a month’s time. He added:
“For me it is not about today only. It’s about what it means for me to have to pull out in a tournament that I love so much, and in the semi-finals after playing well during the whole tournament. You can imagine that I can’t be happy. Sometimes it is tough and can be frustrating for me personally to go through all this stuff.
“I try to be always positive and grateful with all the things that tennis has given to me and life has given to me. I can’t complain much, because I feel very fortunate for all the things that I’ve done in this life… It’s normal that after all those things you go through, there are sad and tough moments, too.”
“I’m just going to keep going, and I’m just going to keep doing the things that work well… The things that I can’t control, I can’t control.”
Unsurprisingly, he will not play Miami next week, instead focusing on preparation for clay, so the first chance of that 39th match will be in Madrid, where both have enjoyed success in the past. But whenever it takes place, the arena will again be sold out—and with fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, Federer would need to regroup, re-schedule his preparation, and ready himself for the final match against No7 seed Thiem, who came through a high-quality, two and a half our battle with Raonic.
The latter had a 2-0 head-to-head advantage, and a 16-3 record in Indian Wells since 2015, reaching the semi-finals or better in each of his last four appearances, including a final appearance.
However, Raonic had not won a title in three years, as he coped with recurrent injury problems of his own. Over the same span, Thiem had won eight titles, and was now in pursuit of his third Masters final, but his first on a hard court.
And the Austrian was near flawless in the first set, though there were no break points on either side. He stormed through the tie-break, 7-6(3), producing some laser passes down the lines to thwart the forward tactics of the big Canadian. He recorded not a single error in the set.
In the second set, Thiem worked just one break point, could not convert, and it headed to another tie-break, a reverse of the first to Raonic, who was rewarded of his brave insistence on coming to the net, 7-6(3).
The decider had all the making of another tie-break, but Thiem at last broke down the attack with huge sweeps from behind the baseline to the feet of the incoming Canadian. He broke in the fifth game, and served it out, 6-4, with a final tally of just seven errors to 25 winners.
Raonic impressed, too—58 winners, 35 errors, 38 points won at the net—but it will be single-hander Thiem against single-hander Federer, who have split their four previous matches down the middle.
Stay tuned Sunday: it should be a cracker.