Call it what you will, but the gods of sport have appeared to forcibly align the stars this week at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for our viewing pleasure. Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal. Need there be an explanation to its epic proportions and nostalgia?
Destiny-laden vibes were circulating through the flowing crowds from the very start of the first Masters 1000 of the 2013 season, as Nadal received a walkover into the fourth round and Federer avoided a rematch against his Rotterdam conqueror in Julien Benneteau. The prospect of Switzerland's Roger and Spain's Rafa meeting in the quarterfinals became more than mouth-watering as the potential encounter crept nearer.
Then came the gargantuan obstacles in Stanislas Wawrinka and Ernests Gulbis for Federer and Nadal, respectively, producing two very enthralling and heart-stopping matches that went down to the wire.
But, true to their word, the powers that be once again seemingly disrupted the momentum of the underdogs in each three-set match, halting their progress toward the biggest wins of their careers with an assortment of nervy errors to hand victory to "Fedal."
Now the living legends will play once again come Thursday night on the hard courts of the BNP Paribas Open, not before 7:00 p.m. PST (10:00 p.m. EST), for their first showdown in exactly a year (with Federer defeating Nadal in the semis at the tournament's 2012 edition, 6-3, 6-4), and the 29th career meeting between the two promises to be special.
The matchup is impeccably timed, falling smack in the middle of Rafa's scrupulously followed comeback to the big time and Roger's underwhelming monotony—and possible injury—to the beginning of his 2013 campaign. More importantly, though, it is the most critical match of the year, thus far.
Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg
"Playing Rafa, it's a classic…but we're both a bit suspect going into it." -Roger Federer #BNPPO132013-3-14 04:17:04
With questions surrounding the health of both champions, who together have collected a ridiculous haul of 28 Grand Slam titles since 2003 (that's 28 of the last 39 slam tournaments in that time frame, in case you were counting), the match will tell us a lot more about the collective state of their bruised bodies and the outcome should prove essential in both the short- and long-term for either Federer or Nadal and their ensuing seasons.
Even while they may be ailing, they surely won't be surrendering.
Is Rafa Ready To Take The Hard Courts By Storm?
For Nadal, the stakes are crystal clear: a chance to prove that his seven-month hiatus from tennis due to an extensively media-covered left knee injury is no longer holding him back from returning to the top of the game.
In this sense, he should enter the match with little pressure, knowing that playing his best will be enough to solidify a successful week in light of his iffy knees, regardless of whether he rises or falls. A win reaffirms his dominance of tennis, with only World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and World No. 3 Andy Murray left to vanquish.
Though inconsistent and unsettled on the court—and off of it as he continues to fume about the newly enforced time violation rule—in his match against Gulbis, who bludgeoned the ball with fierce backhands and took reckless cuts in his return game, Nadal showed his fighting spirit still has the ability to withstand such a barrage.
Will Roger Retain His Grip On The California Desert?
For Federer, however, the burden is far heavier: At 31 years old (set to turn 32 in August), it looks as though time may finally be catching up to the immensely successful Swiss this time. Known for his stunning consistency and longevity, the 17-time Grand Slam champion has fallen in questionable encounters to Benneteau and Tomas Berdych.
It isn't the losses that's so concerning, but rather the manner in which he was defeated: after either relinquishing a winning position or allowing his opponent to dictate proceedings, both incredibly incongruous happenings in Federer's game.
Whether or not the Swiss' recent results are directly related to a recurring back injury is yet to be seen. It was clear in his fourth-round match, though, that Federer wasn't gliding across the court like his usual light-footed self. Needless to say, tennis pundits have time and time again been proven wrong by a suddenly sprightly Federer following a near-exit.
The pressure is now laid squarely on the Swiss' shoulders, as he attempts to defend this title from last year and with it crucial ranking points that have consequently seen him to the World's No. 2 position—and contributed largely to his return last July to the pinnacle of tennis and a four month stint as World No. 1. Considering this, Federer must come to play and put his best foot forward, or risk the possibility of losing his number 2 ranking to Murray.
And The Winner Is?
This famous matchup has been discussed ad nauseam since their first battle in 2004 (it's amazing how much film quality has changed in nine years), and so the general winning tactics need not be iterated once more. Toss aside their 18-10 career head-to-head, in favor of Rafa, as well; it shouldn't have much influence on a contest that is filled to the brim with such uncertainty. Instead, it's more telling to focus on what will be newly different in Thursday night's quarterfinal match.
Federer won't need to rely as much on his serve as he has had to in past clashes against his greatest rival in Nadal, as Rafa isn't returning nearly as well as his 11 Grand Slam titles suggest.
Rather than trying to blow Nadal off the court, Federer might instead attempt to break down the Spaniard's backhand side with varied aggression and slice, as Rafa seems to be struggling with lower-placed shots this week on the hard courts.
As per usual, Federer's backhand is paramount to his success, and he'll need to avoid being pinned in the corner by taking chances to open up the court when he's given the opportunity. Striking the ball early and on the rise has long since been one of Roger's biggest strengths, and he'll need to be hitting outright and controlling Nadal's movement from the get-go.
Against a fit Federer—should the Swiss Maestro come into the match feeling limber and loose—Nadal will need to be much steadier off his backhand wing than he has shown us so far at Indian Wells. Rafa will have to make a concerted effort to stretch Federer to the forehand side using his abbreviated backhand, as Fed struggled in moving toward the deuce court in his match against Wawrinka.
Greg Sharko @SharkoTennis
Rivalry resumes: 10th yr in a row #RogerFederer & @RafaelNadal meet & 28 Grand Slam titles on court, most in men's tennis history. #BNPPO132013-3-14 04:53:36
It will also be to Nadal's benefit to avoid protracted rallies, countering a strategy that Rafa has employed his entire career. Though he shouldn't eliminate the method altogether, Nadal has done well finishing rallies with punishing forehands since his return to tennis a month ago. Keeping his knees in good condition should be his top priority, and taking the preceding fact into account, the confidence Rafa stands to gain from taking a major aspect of Federer's game away is doubly favorable.
Ultimately, when the two wounded warriors do finally engage in battle, it will likely come down to intangibles. Resolve and desire will never abandon these two all-time greats, regardless of pain or injury, and their legendary history speaks volumes of their zeal.
And as Roger and Rafa may truly be entering into an inevitable juncture in their careers, in which together they begin to fade into a picturesque sunset, it would be a shame if we denied them proper appreciation and ovation. Simply enjoy.