THE CHOCOLATE WAR: Switzerland’s Federer and Wawrinka to Battle for Indian Wells Title

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Photo by Brent Bishop

In Indian Wells there are palm trees, searing temperatures and a flat desert. In Switzerland there are majestic spruce, freezing weather and soaring mountains. And never the twain shall meet – well, maybe not.

But tomorrow, far from the Alps, Switzerland’s two best players will walk out in 90° heat and warm up their rivalry. There are few ATP players who have more common history than Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

They’ve been friends and rivals throughout their career. They won the Olympic Gold together in Beijing in 2012 and led their nation to its first Davis Cup championship in 2014. And they’ve shared a coach, Severin Luthi, and a fitness trainer, Pierre Paganini.

Of course, even the best of bromances have an occasional meltdown. And at the 2014 ATP final, Wawrinka got into a spat with Federer’s wife Mirka, who he felt was too boisterous.

On a happier note, there is the matter of backhands: Wawrinka has the best one-handed shot in the game and Federer’s backhand is the most beautiful stroke in all of tennisdom. The duo has collected the two last Grand Slams – the Australian and the US Open.

Few imagined that the Swiss pair would meet in the Indian Wells final. In both his fourth round and quarterfinal matches, Stan had to prevail in third-set tiebreaks, and twice survived match points against lucky loser Yoshihito Nishioka. Of course, it helped that Wawrinka didn’t have to face considerable players like No. 1 seed Andy Murray or Gael Monfils en route to his 6-3, 6-2 win over Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta in the semis.

Even more remarkable, Federer was still alive after navigating his “draw of death.” En route to the semis, he easily dismissed his arch rival Rafa Nadal, 6-2, 6-3. And if Roger wins the tournament he might send a bouquet to Nick Kyrgios. The Aussie beat Novak Djokovic (who had beaten Juan Martin del Potro) and then suffered food poisoning that forced him to withdraw from his “Battle of the Generations” match-up against Roger in the quarterfinals. Today even Federer admited that luck helps.

But here’s a newsflash: Roger has talent. Relaxed, healthy and happy to be in the desert, he sprinted through his semifinal today against Jack Sock, who had not beaten Roger in their previous two meetings.

As expected, Sock – such a prototypical American – served with power and blasted his fierce forehand. It hardly fazed Master Federer, who swept to a first set win in 21 minutes and then relied on his second serve to subdue Sock’s counter-attack 6-1, 7-6(4). Roger, who hasn’t lost a set here, has faced just one breakpoint in the tourney, and will now take on Wawrinka, whom he beat in a tight five-set match in this year’s Aussie Open semis. Roger holds a lopsided 19-3 record over Stan.

Federer today told Inside Tennis that he first heard of Wawrinka when the wannabe was just “a good junior from Lausanne” with a powerful backhand. Right from the start Stan could hit with Roger, who was No. 1 at the time.

Long gone are the nasty Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe days when top players were at each other’s throats. For years Roger advised Stan, and he calls himself Wawrinka’s No. 1 fan.

Tomorrow in a big American stadium, 16,000 fans will be on hand for the last two singles matches of a tournament that drew female players from 26 countries. The women’s final features a duo from one country – the Russian “thirty-somethings,” Sveta Kuznetsova and Elena Vesnina, who have split their previous two meetings.

Indian Wells drew male players from 31 countries and will feature a battle between two Swiss. The match is so appealing that we’re tempted to call it a “popcorn match.” Wrong food. Think chocolate.