Indian Wells 2019: Old rivals Federer and Nadal beat young guns to set 39th showdown
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will face off in the semi-finals at Indian Wells on Saturday
Two familiar, admired tennis stars against a pair of tall, ambitious 22-year-olds; Two multiple Major titlists, multiple Indian Wells champions, each facing a man who had yet to make a Major quarter-final; all four men in pursuit of a semi-final place on one of tennis’s biggest and most glamorous stages.
Such was the prospect on Friday afternoon in front of a sold-out 16,000 strong crowd: First, the 37-year-old five-time BNP Paribas Open champion Roger Federer; then the 32-year-old three-time winner, Rafael Nadal.
Federer played the 67-ranked Hubert Hurkacz, who had just 11 main-tour wins to his name before his arrival in Indian Wells; Federer was up 65 wins at this tournament alone.
Nadal took on the No12 seed Karen Khachanov, who had won the same number of main-tour matches this year as Hurkacz, though the latter also had a Challenger title to his credit; Nadal, No2 in the world and runner-up at the Australian Open, had 53 wins in Indian Wells.
It looked, in both cases, like David vs Goliath. Except that…
Hurkacz had upset three seeds this week, Lucas Pouille, Denis Shapovalov and No6 Kei Nishikori—who he also beat in Dubai fewer than three weeks ago. This time last year, the Pole was ranked 212, and now he was on the verge of the top 50—indeed the top 40 if he could beat his childhood idol, Federer.
He was certainly a player on the up. He had a big serve courtesy of his 6ft 5ins frame, but with the movement of smaller man, fast and balanced, and good defensive ability honed by an upbringing on clay courts.
And Federer knew what he was up against, having practised with him in Shanghai last autumn. The Swiss told media in Indian Wells:
“I remember in the warm-up he barely made a mistake, and every time he made a mistake, he apologised. He’s a really nice guy and he seems very sweet.”
And the Pole does have a ‘sweet’ demeanour, is quietly spoken, assured, and with a gentle sense of humour. Asked about his practice in Shanghai, he replied:
“It was just practice session. I mean, hitting with him is something different. It was a lot of fun for me. Yeah, playing a match is even more fun.”
Then there was Khachanov, a big man of precocious talent, who made a serious dent in the glass ceiling of the tennis hierarchy by winning the Paris Masters at the end of last year. And that was just one of three titles in 2018, having already made his first final at just turned 20 in 2016.
As is often the case, a big stride forward—and Khachanov beat four top-10 players, including No1 Novak Djokovic, in Paris—can be followed by a let-down in form, and he suffered four first-round losses before coming to Indian Wells.
But he picked up some significant scalps to reach the quarters, including No8 seed John Isner, and his confidence was growing. He also had in the memory banks a remarkably close match against Nadal in their last meeting: It was at the US Open, a four-and-a-half-hour tussle that went Nadal’s way, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(3).
Khachanov recalled the day with pleasure:
“I think it was one of the best matches from last year in terms of fight, spirit, intensity, the rallies, the atmosphere. Everything was amazing. He’s one of the best tennis players, great champion. And nothing to lose, let’s say. You know, I’m playing better. Feeling more confident. It will be a good challenge for me.”
It was Federer and Hurkacz up first, at the unusually early hour of 11am, but with familiar wind blasting down the cavernous centre court. And it was the familiar Federer who pounced at the first hint of a chance in the fifth game of the first set.
Hurkacz showed few signs of nerves, and held with ease in the early goings, but two forehand winners by a hyper-aggressive Federer, for two break points, and Hurkacz double faulted.
By the time the Swiss served to hold for 5-3, he had dropped only two points on serve, and would face no significant challenge until serving for the set: a deuce. But Federer held, 6-4, 11 winners to the good.
The Pole, though, was hardly off the pace, and in the second set, stood toe-to-toe with the same high-pace ball-striking as Federer. The Swiss edged a quick break in the third game, but then faced his first break point. He had to hoist a perfect lob when Hurkacz mis-placed a volley, and Federer passed him. The Swiss played clutch to hold: two forehand winners and an ace, 4-2.
But Federer was under pressure on serve, his first deliveries finding the net half the time, and Hurkacz took advantage. The Pole held off a break point in the seventh game, and then worked another break chance as the former champion served for the match. At last, the Swiss found his first serve to great effect, and held, 6-4, to seal his 12th Indian Wells semi-final from a remarkable 83rd Masters quarter-final.
It would be a few hours before he knew his next opponent, for Nadal’s battle with Khachanov would take more than two and a quarter hours for its two tie-break sets.
The tall Russian was fast out of the blocks with some blistering big forehand strikes, and broke immediately, holding for 2-0. He very nearly broke again as Nadal struggled to get his serve working: The Spaniard looked out of sorts, gazed at his box, brow furrowed.
Yet from 1-3 down, he bounced back to take a 4-3 lead, and very nearly finished off the energy-packed set with a break in the 10th game. But Khachanov showed great resistance, and real speed about the court, to fend off four break points: It headed to a tie-break.
Once there, Nadal came out all guns blazing, edged the first advantage at 2-1, and quickly opened the lead to close it out, 7-6(2), after one hour.
Was there a suggestion of a physical problem with Nadal? It appeared not, until a medical time-out after the third game in which again Khachanov had to save break points.
Nadal continued with his right knee strapped, but jumped all over a loose game by the Russian in a flash, breaking in the fifth game. Once more, Khachanov dug deep, broke back, and had a chance to grab the set courtesy of a cracking cross-court pass, but he could not press home his advantage: It would go to another tie-break, a near carbon-copy of the first.
When the going gets tough, there is no-one better to fight your corner than Nadal. From the moment he got the first point against serve, he dropped not another point, 7-6(2), and the statistics spoke of the Spaniard’s completeness on a tennis court: 25 winners to 16 errors, 16/20 won at the net, and full of fight to the bitter end.
So it will be the hoped-for re-engagement of the oldest rivals on the tour, Rafa and Roger, for a 39th time, almost exactly 15 years after their first meeting. The former champions have not met for a year and a half, and while Nadal has the career lead, 23-15, it is the older man who has won their last five meetings.
Even so, this will not be the final: the winner will go on to play either Dominic Thiem or Milos Raonic for the title, who play the first semi-final come Saturday—11am local time.