So often in tennis outcomes are determined by matchups. We saw more evidence of that today in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. The able, powerful Juan Martin Del Potro once again shriveled up like a lemming at the feet of his master, Roger Federer. And then, another Argentine underdog, David Nalbandian, pushed Rafael Nadal to the limit.
After controlling much of the match, Nalbandian stood just two tantalizing points from the match with Nadal serving down a set, 4-5 and 15-30. But an ill-time drop shot – one of many on the day – led to Nalbandian’s undoing.
Nadal, as he does so often, seized the moment, rallied to take the set and first three games of the third before some rare nerves set in. Luckily, Nadal’s third Nalbandian break turned out to be the difference as he saved multiple break points in his final service game to win it 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Armed with an exquisite backhand and heady court geometry, Nalbandian showed despite his age and lack of notable results of late, he still matches up exceptionally well against Nadal. He just came up short again. That said, ranked No. 74 this week, hopefully this will be the start of something good for David.
Earlier, for the fourth time in as many tournaments Federer had his way with Del Potro, crushing the Argentine 6-3, 6-2, in his best performance of the week.
“This was definitely a great match,” he said. “I sort of expected myself to come out and play a good match today after the struggle I had against Bellucci. I don’t usually struggle back-to-back days, so this was for me a really good match against a great player. I’m happy I was happy to maintain the great streak I’ve got going against him this year.”
Federer has now won 11 of 13 meetings with Del Potro and 11 straight sets! For whatever cosmic reason – I say between the ears – Del Potro just has no belief in his ability against Federer. None. It’s really become one-way traffic as Del Potro just doesn’t matchup with Federer at all these days.
“Roger played better than me,” said Del Potro. “I couldn’t be focused during all the match. I didn’t feel comfortable playing the match. That was my problem. Roger did his job, and he’s a good winner.”
Del Potro came unglued in the very first game after the hawkeye replay system failed denying him an opening service break. And that seemed to be it.
Under the afternoon sun, Federer really was untroubled and never pressed. That won’t be the case tomorrow against Nadal who not only leads Federer 18-9 as they bring storied rivalry to California, but he’s won 10 of their last 13 including a four-set win at the Australian Open in January. And surprisingly, Rafa dominates the Swiss 5-1 on outdoor hardcourts with the Roger only winning when Nadal couldn’t finish off a 2-set, 4-1 lead in Miami seven years ago.
“He’s got a great work ethic, and obviously he’s one of the great players of all time,” Federer said of Rafa. “I have had some great matches with him all around the world by now, so I hope I can play him here.”
Even if Federer has fully overcome that viral bug going around, he hasn’t solved the Nadal forehand to his backhand on a high bouncing outdoor hardcourt like Indian Wells. And unfortunately for Federer, he’ll get a steady diet of just that on Saturday.
The gritty court will help Nadal zero in on that corner of the court and it’s going to pay dividends. I give Federer a shot. He’s won 13 straight matches and has been victorious in five of his last seven events. But against Nadal he’ll have to serve exceptionally well – he hit 13 aces today – and really, really dictate with his forehand. Can he do it? It’s possible.
But I think in the end Nadal gets him.
“I believe that it’s going to be a very difficult match for me, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play my best,” said Nadal who will also contest the doubles final later in the day. “But that’s part of the game, and that’s the beautiful things about the sport. I’m going to go there, I’m going to fight every ball and try to play my best tennis and I hope that’s going to happen, but I don’t know.”
In the earlier semifinal, it’s an itriguing affair between the best returner in the game, Novak Djokovic, against the game’s best server in John Isner.
Djokovic’s won both their previous meetings back in 2010, but both are far better players now.
After some shaky play for the first few rounds, Djokovic really kicked it into a higher gear in his quarterfinal win against Nicolas Almagro. Isner’s been solid as well, scraping out a tough three set win Thursday over Gilles Simon to stand on the edge of a Top 10 ranking.
“To beat [Djokovic] you have to be on top of your game no matter who you are,” Isner said. “The same goes for me. I’m gonna have to obviously serve well and take my chances after that. So it’s gonna be one of the toughest matches I’ll ever play, obviously, because he’s No. 1 in the world.
“Hopefully I’ll come out on Saturday and out together a good match and take it to him as best I can.”
Unless Djokovic has a really poor serving day he should advance. Isner will make it tough but the Serb should get enough serves back to eventually break the big man down. Conversely, if Novak is in form and confident in his groundstrokes it’s unlikely Isner will get a break, though tiebreaks are always a lottery for anyone playing a guy like John.
ABC will have live coverage of both semifinals starting at 2pm ET. There is an expectation for inclement weather to be in the Indian Wells area during the day, but hopefully we’ll get the matches in with interruption.
SATURDAY INDIAN WELLS SCHEDULE
STADIUM 1 Start 11:00 am
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) v  John Isner (USA)
 Roger Federer (SUI) v  Rafael Nadal (ESP)
Not Before 3:00 PM
 Liezel Huber (USA)/Lisa Raymond (USA) v  Sania Mirza (IND)/Elena Vesnina (RUS)
Not Before 4:00 PM
Marc Lopez (ESP)/Rafael Nadal (ESP) v John Isner (USA)/Sam Querrey (USA)
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