For a few brief, shining moments Saturday, it was like old times for Rafael Nadal.
Wearing his familiar headband and grunting loudly enough to be heard throughout Stadium 1 at Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Nadal earned a set point in the 10th game of his BNP Paribas open semifinal match against Novak Djokovic. The crowd chanted Nadal's name, pushing him to end a stretch of five straight losses and nine of the last 10 against Djokovic. The two players made great shots and carried on extended rallies, all at a caliber of play that was exceptional in the day's punishing heat.
And then reality set in and Nadal went back to taking consolation from being competitive in another loss to Djokovic, a 7-6 (5), 6-2 decision. That sent the world's No. 1 player to Sunday's final against big-serving but increasingly resourceful Milos Raonic of Canada, who defeated David Goffin of Belgium, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in the other semifinal.
"Today was closer than the last couple of times against the best player of world, so it was a very positive week for me," Nadal said, applying as much spin to his summation as he does to his forehand.
Coming close is about all the consolation anyone seems able to get against Djokovic, who has shown no sign of relinquishing his stranglehold on the No. 1 world ranking after 89 straight weeks.
While far from perfect Saturday, Djokovic improved to 21-1 this year by consistently forcing Nadal — a former world No. 1 who's now No. 5 — to take one more shot than he wanted, wearing down the 29-year-old Spaniard. Djokovic simply came up with the right shots at the right times, as he usually does, notably to close out the first-set tiebreaker after Nadal had pulled even at 5-5, and to earn breaks to go up, 4-3, and close out the match in an hour and 58 minutes.
Djokovic's knack of thriving under pressure isn't new.
"l have been trained to do that," he said. "I work hard to be able to come up with the best game when it's the most needed…. I'm just glad to overcome this challenge that is one of the greatest in sport, as it always is playing against Rafa."
Djokovic will face a dramatically different challenge against Raonic, who had 11 aces Saturday and consistently surpassed 140 mph in defeating Goffin. Raonic, seeded 12th and ranked 14th in the world, hadn't lost a set here before the speedy and persistent Goffin wrested the middle set from him Saturday. Goffin, a mere 5 feet 11 to Raonic's towering 6-5, was nearly tireless in returning the missiles Raonic sent his way, breaking Raonic in the eighth game of the second set and serving out the set.
But Raonic, moving well for someone of his size and altering the look of his second serve, broke Goffin to take a 2-0 lead in the third set, held for 3-0, and showed variety to his game in closing out the match without complication.
Raonic was ranked No. 4 in the world last May but struggled with injuries last season and missed several tournaments this season because of an adductor muscle injury. Going the distance against Goffin should be good preparation for Sunday's final.
"I feel like I did the things right," said Raonic, 25. "I sort of lost my way a little bit in the second set, and it's important to me to be able to recognize that and get the things back on the right track and play and finish off with some good tennis like I did."
It will take great tennis for Raonic to beat Djokovic, who holds a 5-0 career edge over him and has lost only one set to him. Although Nadal couldn't do more than compete well Saturday he believes Raonic has the potential to prevail Sunday.
"Milos has the serve. Novak is a great returner, has a great return, but when somebody serves like this and has two opportunities every time, first and second serve, if he serves well, Novak will not have the break," Nadal said. "So we gonna go to a tiebreak and we'll see what's going on. That's the real thing. If Milos serve well, he can win against everybody."
Then again, Djokovic, as he continues to prove, isn't like everybody else.