It was clear from start that the first men's quarterfinal Friday at the BNP Paribas Open would be over in straight sets.
Grunting, lunging, looking uncomfortable in the broiling midday sun at Indian Wells, one player was down a break after the fourth game and faced a 3-1 deficit and two break points in the fifth game. The rout was on.
And so it turned out, though not in the way it began.
Rafael Nadal, who seemed to be coming undone against Kei Nishikori, used his guts and guile to dodge defeat yet again. Nadal, who had saved a match point in the fourth round, bloomed again in the desert heat by holding serve in that game and turning the match around. He broke Nishikori to win the first set and twice more in the second for a 6-4, 6-3 victory that inspired him to dance across the court before an adoring crowd, which will get a chance to bellow his name again Saturday in the semifinals.
Nadal will face defending champion and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) Friday and displayed a nice bit of sportsmanship along the way. Djokovic told the chair umpire during the first-set tiebreaker that a point awarded to him on a shot by Tsonga should be taken away because the ball hit him before sailing long. That was commendable but only postponed the inevitable, though Djokovic said he gained from being pushed.
"The fact that I have played somebody that was feeling good throughout the week, somebody that serves very, very big and plays very quick and efficient, precise forehands that gave me a lot of trouble today, to win in straight sets and to win in two tiebreaks, I think it's gonna help definitely my confidence," Djokovic said. "Mentally, I will take that."
Djokovic leads Nadal, 24-23, in head-to-head matches, including a 6-1, 6-2 trouncing at Doha in January. Nadal had no interest in reliving that one. "Nothing to say about that match than offer congratulations to him," Nadal said. "Tomorrow is another day. He's a clear favorite because he's winning all the matches almost every time."
True enough. Djokovic is 20-1 this year, and the loss was a retirement at Dubai because of an eye infection. He has dropped only one set here, in his first match. "I know Novak is playing unbelievable, so it's so difficult," Nadal said, "but I am here to keep enjoying, keep trying my best, and keep playing with the right energy."
Nadal, the No. 4 seed, has held up remarkably well in punishing heat and unpredictable winds. "He never gives up. He always makes you play an extra shot. Always makes you earn the win," Djokovic said.
Nadal, who will be 30 in June, said he needed reassurance that his trademark combativeness hasn't faded.
"I feel myself strong mentally. I feel myself with the right energy. When that happens, the rest is a little bit less difficult, no?" he said. "I am able to fight for every ball. I am able to keep going during the whole match, believe in myself again, and that makes me play with more energy, less nerves. That's so important for me, no? It's the way I play during all my career, and that gives me a lot.'
Tsonga was asked to compare Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer and say which is best at his peak. Counting Grand Slams or titles, Tsonga said, maybe it's Federer, who missed this tournament while recovering from knee surgery but is expected to return next weekend in Miami. "And then you have two guys who are just amazing," Tsonga said. "Rafa was the best on clay for 10 years, and Novak, he's now the actual best player, I think, because he's No. 1 since a while now…. They will be part of history, and for sure for a long time."
The winner will advance to Sunday's final against the winner of Saturday's semifinal between No. 15 David Goffin and No. 12 Milos Raonic. It was here, in 2007, that Nadal and Djokovic met for the first time in a final, and although Nadal prevailed, it told Djokovic that he could compete with the big boys. That became his breakthrough year.
"Forty-eight matches later, a lot has happened. You know, it keeps going," Djokovic said. "I enjoy a rivalry against Rafa. It's probably the most exciting rivalry I have in my career. Hopefully we can play many more matches."
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