The bottom quarter of the BNP Paribas Open draw has already witnessed a showdown between rising stars Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev. Additionally, Novak Djokovic is playing Juan Martin Del Potro on Tuesday.
But if you think those matchups are intriguing, wait until Wednesday.
Even though this Masters 1000 has not yet even reached the quarterfinals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will renew their illustrious rivalry on Wednesday evening in Indian Wells. A spot in the last eight will be at stake when the two all-time greats square off for the 36th time in their careers and for the second time this season. Nadal leads the head-to-head series 23-12, but Federer–of course–most recently triumphed 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in an epic Australian Open final two months ago. If the 35-year-old Swiss prevails once again, their hard-court history against each other will be tied up at nine wins apiece.
Neither player had any real trouble setting up a battle that was eagerly anticipated when the hard-to-believe Indian Wells draw was released almost exactly one week ago. Federer did not break serve a single time against Steve Johnson on Tuesday, but he cruised through two tiebreakers en route to a 7-6(3), 7-6(4) victory. The 18-time Grand Slam champion preceded that result by destroying Stephane Robert 6-2, 6-1 in the second round. He is now 10-1 this season, with his only loss coming at the hands of Evgeny Donskoy in a 3-6, 7-6(7), 7-6(5) Dubai thriller during which Federer squandered three match points, a 5-2 advantage in the third set, and a 5-1 lead in the final tiebreaker.
Nadal booked his spot in the last 16 this fortnight thanks to straight-set defeats of fellow left-handers Guido Pella and Fernando Verdasco. Thus the world No. 6 is bouncing back nicely from a surprising Acapulco final setback against an on-fire Sam Querrey, who had previously upset David Goffin, Dominic Thiem, and Nick Kyrgios in succession.
“Everything,” Nadal said with a smile when asked what makes Federer’s game so special. “Yeah, he has the talent to do very difficult things that looks easy. He’s able to take the ball very early–serve and first shot. He [creates] a lot of winners with the two first shots, no? And then he’s able to take the ball always from inside (the court), and he’s very quick going to the net. If you play short ball, then you know that he [is going to] hit a winner, gonna play [either a] forehand or backhand, go to the net, and you are going to be in big trouble.
“His backhand in Melbourne was one of the best days that I played against him.”
It is true that Federer’s backhand has been outstanding of late, but he also had the benefit in Melbourne of facing Nadal on what amounted to be a relative ice rink compared to Australian Opens of previous years. Those same conditions will not be on display in the California desert, where the courts are slow and the balls bounce high.
Longer rallies will likely be the story on Wednesday, and many of those baseline exchanges will see Nadal successfully employ the strategy that has worked so well for him against Federer in the past: heavy topspin forehands to the backhand side.
Pick: Nadal in 2