The tennis match that drives ticket sales, TV ratings and the increasing heartbeats of sports fans is set for Saturday, in a huge stadium that rises out of the Southern California desert like a concrete mirage.
Yes, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal won their quarterfinal matches Friday at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. They will play about 1 p.m. in the 16,100-seat Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which might be a nominee for the eighth wonder of the world when you consider that, 20 years or so ago, this place was desert dust and weeds.
Time flies, tennis changes, and two of the most fascinating athletes of the current era are still going at it. Saturday’s semifinal will be their 39th meeting and, sadly, only their fourth ever here. That may increase the fascination and fervor.
To get to Saturday, the fourth-seeded Federer beat an unseeded Polish 22-year-old named Hubert Hurkacz, who succumbed 6-4, 6-4. One break each set. It looked routine because it was.
“I got clear playing patterns,” Federer said, which meant everything to him and little to anybody else. In the tennis world, he is Aristotle.
To get to Saturday, the second-seeded Nadal defeated 12th-seeded Russian Karen Khachanov, who succumbed 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2). Nadal played two superb tiebreakers. That looked routine, but the match was anything but. At 1-2 of the second set, Nadal called a trainer, who wrapped white tape just below his right knee. Nadal went out, appeared to limp a bit and favor the leg, seemed to struggle for a game or two, and then gathered himself and did away with Khachanov, whom he has now played and beaten six times.
It is difficult to preview Saturday’s epic without using lots of numbers. Tennis, like baseball, is becoming best understood with a calculator in hand. Of the 38 matches they have played, Nadal has won 23. Twenty-four of those have been in finals, Nadal winning 14. But the record holder for most major titles is Federer, with 20, three more than Nadal. Federer has won at Indian Wells five times, Nadal three. Federer’s career tennis winnings are about $120 million, Nadal’s about $103 million. Federer started for real on tour in 1999, and by 2003, when Nadal was becoming a force, Federer was already flirting with being No. 1.
The marketing pitch for the pro golf tour applies perfectly to Federer and Nadal. These guys are good.
But there is a new fascination that may present itself Saturday — the slow creeping of age, and the varying way each is handling it.
Federer will be 38 in August. He has missed little playing time in his career, mostly in 2016, when he played in only seven tournaments because he injured his knee putting one of his four kids in the bathtub. Watching him play is reminiscent of the nickname once placed on basketball player Clyde Drexler, whom sportswriters labeled “Clyde the Glide.” Or former Laker Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes. Federer is so smooth you worry that his kids will slide off his lap.
Nadal will be 33 in June. He has lost chunks of playing time with injuries, enough to miss nine Grand Slam events. He has had bad knees, bad wrists, even a bad appendix. When he plays, it is like a kung fu movie, where one warrior beats back hundreds of enemy fighters. Legendary Australian tennis star Roy Emerson of Newport Beach says Nadal plays like he is going to war. “On every point,” Emerson says.
Saturday will bring the usual conflicting styles of play, as well as a fascination with how this brutal, grinding sport will take them forward, as well as past their playing time. Federer talks about the ongoing joy of traveling with his big family and having it there to share in his tennis moments. He seems to say he will know when it is time, but it certainly isn’t yet.
Nadal, not so much. It may be that the old soul in this twosome is not the oldest guy.
In his news conference, Nadal was coy about his injured knee, not because he is, in any way, a coy person. He just doesn’t want to make excuses in advance. Any such discussion inevitably ends up in a negative media characterization. But his legacy discussion Friday veered into more than a sore knee and whether that will play a role against Federer on Saturday.
“This is not only about a couple of players [Nadal and Federer] able to hold on and play long,” he said. “It’s about how many hip injuries, how many hip surgeries you have around the tour, now many problems with the knee. ...”
He also said, “It’s about after your tennis career, and you still want to have a normal life at age 35, 32, 31.”
He said the preponderance of hard playing surfaces takes a toll and added, “The tour will not change.”
Federer is still looking down the road, Nadal not so much.
When asked about next week’s big event in Miami, Nadal prefaced his answer with, “If I play.”
For the sake of tennis, here’s hoping a similar question about Saturday’s match with Federer would not elicit the same response.
Saturday’s featured matches
Dominic Thiem vs. Milos Raonic, 11 a.m.
Followed by Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
Not before 3 p.m.
Barbora Krejcikova-Katerina Siniakova vs. Elise Mertens-Aryna Sabalenka
Not before 5 p.m.