At the start of this tournament I picked Rafael Nadal to win this Indian Wells Masters title. But having watched yesterday matches I’m struggling to maintain belief in that pick.
Saturday, we saw – at least I saw – the pattern of this event continue. Be it weather, be it focus, be it just the timing of the tournament, but players are winning not necessarily on their own merit but rather despite their own poor play or more often thanks to the failings of their opponents.
We certainly saw that when Murray upended Roger Federer for the fourth straight time Saturday. After Murray took the first set, Federer really raised his level to capture the second. But then in the third the once almost-unbeatable Swiss absolutely unraveled once again, all but handing Murray the win behind a flurry of miscues.
Federer’s final set performance was eerily reminiscent of his final set meltdown in that epic 5-set heart breaker to Rafa in Melbourne. Clearly, Fed’s lost some confidence against the top players when push comes to shove and that’s not a good sign for Roger who, based on what I’m seeing, may very well slip to No. 3 at some point this season.
And that’s because Murray’s coming on strong. I said if he was fit and playing to his level he would win. And while he did get a lot of help from Federer in that third set, he seemed to be striking the ball pretty crisply right from the get go.
A guy not striking the ball very yesterday, however, was Nadal. Even though he fought off a game Andy Roddick in a 6-4, 7-6 win, Nadal uncharacteristically sprayed balls all around the court. Wind or no wind, balls were flying long, wide, in the net, out of the stadium. You name it, Rafa was hitting it. So while Nadal did survive and advance, he certainly did not look like a guy ready to capture this crown.
So entering today’s final we have Murray, who’s been quietly and confidently going about his business, taken what’s been given to him, and Rafa, who’s virtually set the nozzle on his ground game to spray in recent matches.
Of the four potential final matchups we could see from the semifinal lineup, I think Nadal v. Murray is the toughest to pick. It’s the most even. Nadal has the 5-2 head-to-head lead, but since Murray’s really emerged in the last nine months the Scot’s won two straight over the World No. 1 (three if you throw in an early season exo win) including a victory in the Rotterdam finals indoors last month.
And right now I think Murray’s playing far better tennis. But if both play up to their levels, on this slow, grainy surface it’s Rafa’s match to lose.
In finals play, Nadal also has the edge. The Spaniard enjoys an exceptional 32-9 record in title bouts while Murray is no slouch himself at 10-5.
That said, I’ll begrudgingly stick with my pick and take Rafael to cut down on the errors, fight through the forecasted wind and somehow, someway down Murray. If, however, there’s any hint that’s Rafa’s not on his game, Murray’s going to take this match. But in the finals that I’ve seen how often does a healthy Rafa bring his “A” game? Answer: Almost always.
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