Plagued throughout his career with chronic knee issues, Rafael Nadal has often suffered in pursuit of his dream to play world-class tennis. Yesterday, in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open, Nadal and the world were reminded why that suffering has all been worth it.
When the final ball bounced outside the lines at Indian Wells, the crowd was greeted with the familiar site of Nadal double-pumping one arm with his unique grimace framed by a sweat-soaked headband. Standing across from him was a familiar foe, Roger Federer, vanquished yet again by the Spaniard from Mallorca.
Although much of the pre-match attention had been focused on the questions surrounding Nadal's health, the script was flipped at some point during play, with the post-match attention focused on the health of Federer. What a difference 84 minutes can make.
Prior to his match yesterday against Federer, Nadal's break from the tour had been well-documented by the tennis world. The swashbuckling Spaniard was dropped from the tour last summer with the same sudden and improbable style that had characterized his ascent. Unfortunately, it came at a time when the level of play on the tour seemed to be cresting toward a new all-time level.
Prior to his stunning loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon, fans of tennis had been riding a never-before-seen wave of four consecutive Grand Slam finals featuring the same two players. Then, the proverbial rug was pulled from beneath our feet.
The shocking loss by Nadal in the second round of the 2012 Wimbledon seemed to confirm what many have feared for so long—Nadal's physical style of play would derail his promising career for a significant period of time—maybe forever.
Along with his usual knee ailments, Nadal had also been playing on a partially torn patella tendon—pain from which was probably difficult to differentiate from the usual throbbing in his knees.
Many posited during Nadal's absence that, if he returned, he might never achieve success on surfaces outside clay ever again.
The side affect of his absence from tour would also be the deprivation of not only the greatest rivalry the game had ever seen but arguably the second-best as well.
With Nadal gone, it was time for the overall quality of the men's game to finally suffer too.
The potential pairing of Nadal and Federer at a Slam, always a fan favorite, was gone. As was the drama between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, which seemed to be just starting to build in momentum—if one can call 33 total meetings and 15 finals a "start."
Thankfully for Rafa, his team, the tour and fans of it, he was able to avoid surgery, rehabilitate his knees and return to the game in early 2013. But that return hasn't come without questions.
Each of which seems to have been definitely answered with every step of his comeback. In his first three tournaments back on tour, Nadal claimed three appearances in the finals and two titles. The more recent coming against the No. 4-ranked player in the world, David Ferrer, at the Mexican Open. The final score of that match was 6-0, 6-2.
Many cited a tour-weary Ferrer for such a one-sided score after the tournament, but recent events may call that theory into question. At Indian Wells these past few days, Nadal has been finding some answers to even more questions about the state of his game—and on a surface that many had claimed he would no longer be competitive.
Nadal's 6-4, 6-2 win over Roger Federer on Thursday evening was his loudest statement yet in a comeback that is starting to look a lot like his return from injury in 2010.
The first set between Nadal and Federer featured the suspense often associated with their previous matches. Federer dug deep in several of his first service games to avoid early disaster. Nadal appeared to be moving well, serving well and getting great depth and power off of both wings.
In the first few games, Federer was clearly unveiling a strategy that sought weakness in the Nadal backhand. Early play was characterized by the Federer forehand to the Nadal backhand, an obvious change from the usual pattern observed between the two which features the Nadal forehand battering the Federer backhand.
However, either due to failure of that strategy or fatigue/injury, the match eventually reverted to the usual script—especially in regards to the ultimate result.
After the eighth game of the match, Nadal's quality seemed to improve to the same degree that Federer's deteriorated, with Nadal eventually claiming the first set and two breaks early in the second set. The final set was characterized by a slew of unforced errors by Federer off both wings.
Nadal himself seemed to notice a difference between the level of competition in the two sets of the match. In the post-match press conference, according to ASAP Sports, he said,
"I played a fantastic first set, in my opinion. The second set was strange. The second set I think Roger didn't fight as usual. Probably he had some problems and he didn't feel enough comfortable to keep fighting."
Playing against stiffer competition in the form of both the harder courts beneath his knees and his longtime adversary Federer, Nadal acquitted himself on both counts.
After claiming the last point of the match, Nadal briefly celebrated the win and no doubt considered the fact that his career head-to-head record against Federer had moved to 19-10. Rafa also improved to 6-2 against Federer on outdoor hard court—a stunning figure when one considers that Federer won nine Slams on outdoor hard court, and Nadal has won two. Nadal was seen signing autographs on the court well after the match was completed, no doubt cherishing the moment.
In the short-term, Nadal and his team will most likely revel in the current state of his comeback. Taking a title on clay against Ferrer and then a hard court win over Federer are certainly more than they could have dreamed of—even a month ago.
Whether or not Nadal can win his next match against Tomas Berdych at Indian Wells is probably not a critical question at this stage in his comeback. Nadal has already proven he can still compete at a high level. The first round of questions has been answered.
Nadal himself seems to agree. After the match, he was asked in the press conference if he was all the way back and according to ASAP Sports Nadal replied, "I am here so I am back on the tour."
Whether Nadal was implying that "here" meant in the winner's press conference after a match against recent world No. 1 Federer or simply back on tour is up for debate. What isn't is the fact that Nadal is indeed playing competitive tennis again.
For Federer, the loss to Nadal at Indian Wells comes on top of some already mixed results in 2013. At this stage last year, Federer had won three titles. Right now he has none and may also be reeling from a bad back. The lighter schedule Federer has planned for the next two months may help in righting what appears to be a ship taking water.
The longer-term goal for Nadal will be improving his durability and conditioning so he can mount an all-out attack at the next Grand Slam in Paris. Nadal will be seeking to claim his eighth French Open title in nine tries, and it’s likely he does not want to tarnish his sterling 52-1 record.
However, at the top of that mountain awaits a formidable foe seeking his own prize. Novak Djokovic is still looking for his first French Open title. It's the last piece in a puzzle that would make him the fourth man to claim a career Grand Slam in the Open Era. In his quarterfinal, Djokovic breezed through Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-1, and in the process, answered a lot of questions about his own form.
It’s possible, though not likely, that Djokovic and Nadal will meet in the final at Indian Wells. However, if they do meet for the 34th time in their careers, it will be a must-see event. And likely a prelude to something even more dramatic at Roland Garros.