We are through with the appetizers, the undercard, the opening acts, it’s on to the big show, and what a way to kick off the the last four days at Indian Wells with Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal, round 29 tonight! Before I get there, some notes on the week.
Things so far have surprisingly gone as forecasted. The big names have just about all advanced but each has had their share of struggles and issues. Novak Djokovic hasn’t been as sharp as we would expect (he still has Sam Querrey later).
Federer was very crisp in his first two matches (really first six sets!), but possibly some back concerns could linger, more on that below.
In his first hardcourt event in about a year, Nadal has looked like a guy playing his first hardcourt event in about year. Rafa has played well, but he’s not at the level we’ve seen from him in the past.
Andy Murray has quietly sneaked through, shaking off a opening set loss and some poor results the last few years to return to the quarterfinals where he’ll face Juan Martin Del Potro Friday in a good one. Del Potro meanwhile is playing some ball!
Tomas Berdych has continued his decent 2013 form, and he’s on Thursday against a fellow big man, Kevin Anderson. He might be playing the best of anyone right now.
The dissapointments: The American men – John Isner can’t get a break, Ryan Harrison lacks that big weapon and Sam Querrey, who is the new No. 1 in the U.S., mentally can’t compete with the big boys (pre-Djokovic).
Janko Tipsarevic collapsed (not litterally, but he could only manage two games against Ernests Gulbis) and Top 20 veterans Juan Monaco and Fernando Verdasco have combined to win four matches through 2.5 months of the season!
Now on to the Thursday quarterfinals.
Tomas Berydch v. Kevin Anderson
Berdych is a guy who recently has been beating the guys he should beat, and now he’s occasionally beating those ranked above him, as well. At 27, maybe this is the best tennis he’s ever played. And through four matches this week he hasn’t dropped a single set. That after a final run in Dubai where he beat Federer before losing to Djokovic.
Today, he gets the big serving 6-foot-8 Anderson who’s in the midst of one his best events after stunning David Ferrer and then beating Gilles Simon yesterday. And he’s remarkably pulling this off shortly after undergoing elbow surgery. Anderson has the serve and he’s pretty decent off the ground as well. But helped by his size, Berdych has blunted that power game beating Anderson in all five of their prior meetings, all coming since the start of last year.
Anderson took him to five on the Roland Garros clay, but on hardcourts Berdych has won eight of nine sets. And with the way Tomas has been playing it’s hard to pick a heavy underdog against the Czech right now.
The pick: Berdych in two
Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal
As I said, it’s round 29 and this time it’s with a record-breaking 28 Slam titles between the two on the court! It’s also the second straight year these two legends meet at Indian Wells. Nadal holds the big lead 18-10, dominating Federer on the clay. But on hardcourts Federer has the 6-5 edge including that win last year when the weather was less than ideal.
On outdoor hardcourts, though, it’s Nadal up 5-2. That’s right, 5-2. And that should give Federer fans a lot of concern.
Tonight, though, the circumstances are much different then last year’s meeting. The rain/wind we had should be gone. But because they are playing at night it will be much cooler than the conditions Federer played in Wednesday when he beat Stan in the heat of the day. Warmer temperatures usually keep back spams at bay, colder conditions can inflame. Hopefully it won’t be an issue – just look for Roger to wear an undershirt!
Nadal also isn’t at his top strength. He really hasn’t beaten anyone of note at the tournament only playing two matches. Gulbis has been hot but mentally Ernests isn’t there as we saw in the end tonight. Ernie, however, did push Rafa. He played him strong, made Nadal work and now Rafa will have to quickly recover and return on hardcourts in 24 hours, and that’s something that’s bothered Nadal in the past – playing tough matches on hardcourts in consecutive days.
As for their matches Wednesday, Federer looked great until that stunning hiccup when serving for it at 5-4. Then he got lucky because had he been playing someone like Nadal or Novak or Murray, he wouldn’t have won. Stan had the break in the third but couldn’t mentally keep it together against his Swiss running mate.
“Today it was extremely close again. Okay, I should [have] maybe closed it out in the second set, but he did well to stay in it,” Federer said. “At the end, I don’t know what [got] me through. Maybe it’s the experience or maybe [I was] a bit more calm in those moments. I’m not sure. Today I think I was a little lucky to come through it in the end.”
Nadal won in similar fashion. Gulbis started forcefully taking the first set then Rafa dug in, breaking a fizzling Gulbis down to take the second. Surprisingly, Gulbis held firm in the third coming tantalizingly close to pulling the upset late in the set, but like Wawrinka, for all the fury and fire, between the ears Gulbis just doesn’t have the goods to close it out.
So both are coming off shaky performances.
We know the matchups front and back (Roger needs to serve well, Rafa needs to get the heavy topspin to the Fed backhand, etc), but now for some extra factors to consider.
This court: Because the Indian Wells court is slower than say the US Open, and it takes to Nadal’s spin I think this court surface helps Rafa.
The match time: The cooler night time conditions, though, does take some of the spin away. But because of Roger’s back injury I feel the night start slightly helps Rafa.
The no day of rest: I’ll give that edge to Roger. Again, I don’t think Nadal likes playing tough matches on back-to-back days on hardcourts, especially with what he’s gone through the last seven months. And who knows who those damn knees will feel after the first real hardcourt battle in a year.
Indian Wells history: I lean here to the four-time champion Roger. Rafa though has won it twice and been at least to the semifinals the last seven years!
Streakers: Federer has won 8 straight matches at Indian Wells. Nadal has won his last 12 I think. But all but two of those were on clay, so I give the edge to Federer. Plus Roger has been close in his losses this year – taking Murray to five, extending Del Potro in Marseille and holding matchpoints against Berdych in Dubai, all on the concrete.
The need: For Rafa, the expectations aren’t there this week. Many didn’t even think he’d be playing Indian Wells while for Roger, this is his last hardcourt event until Canada. It’s a win a he needs more, so edge to Federer. But because he’s playing Fed, Rafa will rise up.
In the end, I just can’t get over the fact that Nadal has hardly played on hardcourts. So I think the rust will show through and I do wonder about his recovery from the Gulbis match – he’ll need his knees against Roger. Last year I picked Nadal in this matchup (and lost!). This time solely because of Rafa’s inactivity and state of his knees I’m going Federer.
The pick: Federer in three
The madness begins at 10pm ET live on the Tennis Channel (which has coverage all day). It’s must-see TV.
(It’s late so I’ll add quotes and more to this post tomorrow morning plus Novak’s result.)
THURSDAY INDIAN WELL SCHEDULE
STADIUM 1 start 11:00 am
 A Kerber (GER) vs  S Stosur (AUS) – WTA
Not Before 1:00 PM
 T Berdych (CZE) vs K Anderson (RSA) – ATP
Not Before 3:00 PM
 V Azarenka (BLR) vs  C Wozniacki (DEN) – WTA
S Hsieh (TPE) / S Peng (CHN) vs  N Petrova (RUS) / K Srebotnik (SLO) – WTA
Not Before 7:00 PM
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  R Federer (SUI) – ATP
 B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs S Gonzalez (MEX) / S Lipsky (USA) – ATP
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