Emotion. Raw and furious. Rafa’s got it. His muscles ripple. His fist-pumps are fierce.
Precision, torque and speed – the master craftsman Novak Djokovic stretches – then blasts like no other tennis warrior. The fluid Serb has taken his sport to powerful, corner-to-corner peaks that the Samprases and Federers of the world could have only imagined.
Now, on this beautiful afternoon, the tennis seas parted and the most compelling rivalry in the game game was before us.
After all, Andy Murray – Davis Cup hero, Australian Open finalist and No. 2 in the world – had suffered another case of desert fever. He’d lost in the third round.
For all his transcendent beauty, Roger Federer was on sick leave. Being a dad of four has risks. The long-glorious artist, now 34, tweaked his knee while having quality time with his daughters. Roger’s not perfect.
Neither is Novak Djokovic. He struggled with Gilles Simon in Melbourne. He lost to Feliciano Lopez in Dubai due to an eye injury, and here in Indian Wells, American overachiever Bjorn Fratangelo gave him a brief shock for a set. But overall – unless you’re the Sultan of the Dubai Tennis Association – you’d say the guy hasn’t lost a tournament that counted since last year’s French Open. He’s an ascendent champ – punching hard – at his peak.
In contrast, Nadal seemed to almost be on the ropes. Coming off a long injury, he was no longer able to impose devastating pain with his not-that-deep forehand. His aura had holes. Belief is everything to this man. And, unless you’re Wolfgang Schuster, the Lord Mayor of Stuttgart (where Nadal won a modest tournament in June), you wouldn’t say that Rafa, now No. 5, has prevailed in a big tourney in almost two years. He lost to his buddy, Fernando Verdasco, in the first round of the Australian Open and failed to triumph on clay in South America. Know-it-alls shouted, “Dump your uncle, get a new coach.” Fools claimed he took drugs. Rafa said he would let his lawyers do the talking. There were whispers on other fronts too. Was the 14-Slam winner like some grand boxer who’d taken too many punches? Was his magnificence beginning to wane? We’re all mortal.
But in Indian Wells, Nadal didn’t seem at all mortal. He surged. Mindset is a key for him. He was feeling it. “The energies,” as he calls them, were flowing. His mentality was better – more confidence, less nerves. He beat Verdasco, which had to be a confidence builder, survived the onslaught of a rising star, Alexander Zverev, and passed a stern test when he defeated the No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori.
Still, the tide of recent events pulled mightily against the Spaniard. Novak led their rivalry 24-23 and had won in nine of their last ten meetings. He had a 17-7 lead on hard-courts and a 2-1 advantage at Indian Wells. But, in the second game of the match, Nadal broke with ease. This would not be like their last meeting, in Doha, when Novak humbled Rafa, 6-1, 6-2.
Now, Nadal was playing at a high level again. He moved brilliantly, hitting laser backhands and inside-out forehands that kissed the lines. At times he almost made Djokovic look ordinary. Plus, he had a puncher’s shot to gain the upper hand. But, when leading 5-4 in the first set, a set point in hand, his forehand faltered.
Truth be told, today’s semi was a classic case of the cream rising to the top. At times the best player in the world seemed to be toying with mighty Rafa. First, there was a well-disguised backhand drop shot from the baseline, then came a devilish lob. More often we saw the mind-boggling arsenal of the gluten-free guy who comforts refugees one moment, laughs with his buddies the next, talks to the press on the joys of fatherhood and then climbs into an oxygen-boosting chamber.
He’s fast and fit. His flexibility amazes. His groundies and returns of serve are the best. Jab, jab, jab – pow! His defense astounds, then he goes on the offensive.
He’s consistent, and he knows how to read foes and take advantage. He adeptly lifts his level with an icy ease. So often he prevails with confidence. What are this man’s weaknesses? Okay, his overhead is average. Others have better serves. And he’s not 6’6″.
But he’s such a gifted clinician, the model of the modern professional, who turns his recent dominance into a kind of home court advantage.
Djokovic stepped up and won the first set tiebreak with some ease. Then, taking advantage of all the punches he’d landed, he pulled away. Novak summarized the match, telling IT that Rafa “started much better [than in Doha]. We had a very long first set. It went an hour and ten minutes…It’s very physical when I get to play Nadal. I had a couple of break points 4-3 up in the first set and didn’t use that. He had his chances…He had 5-4, set point. So it was quite even coming into tiebreak…I was 5-2 up; he came back to 5-all with some great defense and great points. Then I just served well and hung in there [on points and] made him play an extra shot. Five-all, 6-5, those points in the tiebreak…decided [the whole set].”
So today was Nole’s day. His 7-6 (5), 6-2 win sent him into Sunday’s final as a favorite against the big-hitting and improving Milos Raonic. Novak, who’s never lost in five matches to the Canadian, will be going for records: his fifth Indian Wells title and his 27th Masters. Incredibly, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have won 48 of the last 53 ATP Masters 1000 tourneys.
But these days are less about the Big Four and more about a singular Serb. Spaniard Feliciano Lopez boldly commented that Novak is the best of all time, with Federer next.
What we know is that we are in the Djokovic era. The man is a master. Just ask Mr. Nadal.