It is March Madness after all. Thirteen days ago who would have honestly predicated that the two players, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro, sharing a giggle at a Monday night exo in NYC would end up as the last two men standing at the Indian Wells Tennis Masters. Not me, that’s for sure. Heck, I didn’t see that happening even earlier today!
But full credit to both Nadal and Del Potro. That’s why they play the game. That’s why we love this game.
Of course yours truly made the colossal mistake of picking Tomas Berdych to beat Rafa. And the match actually went as expected. Berdych hung around, got the break and then served for the second. Then, on cue, proceeded to implode dropping his last two service games to lose 6-4, 7-5. Just like always. Nadal, who played pretty well against an in-form opponent, hit his usual array of ferocious forehand winners and continued to give Berdych a lot of problems with his lefty serve. He’s now beaten the Czech 12 straight times to lead 13-3 in their head-to-head. I won’t be taking Tomas to beat Rafa ever again. Despite his seemingly improved play this year, Tomas is still Tomas.
“Is not easy coming back after an important injury after seven months without playing a tournament,” said Nadal who has won his last 12 against Top 10 players. “It is difficult to come back and to understand how to win the points another time, how to manage the important situations.”
And Rafa’s right, in the men’s game it isn’t easy. But Nadal’s making it look that way, obliterating all those in his path with even more fury and tenacity of late than before the injury.
Now Nadal has the longest clay court win streak (9).
Now Nadal has the longest current hardcourt win streak (8).
Now imagine what happens when the the knees return to full health?
Del Potro’s been dynamite as well, literally. No one has the explosive firepower that he does. And now perhaps there’s some divine intervention from the Argentinean Pope. How else can you explain Del Potro somehow overcoming a 3-0 third set deficit to beat the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a thriller.
“All the credit to my opponent today,” said Djokovic. “He deserved to win because he was more composed in the important moments and he played the right shots. He stepped into the court, where, on the other side, I made a lot of unforced errors and was at the back of the court [and was] too passive.”
Even with an ailing left wrist (not the wrist he missed a year with), Del Potro continues to bewilder his opposition with his newfound defensive skills. Known for his firepower, Del Potro is now biding his time, like a spider, just waiting for his opponent to make a mistake and drop one short to his forehand. And then Del Potro pounces.
Djokovic hasn’t looked like his best all tournament and today was no different. The Serb came out well but then fell apart in the second dropping serve an unconscionable three times. Troubled by some leg discomfort, he went up a break in the third but couldn’t hold off the Argentine who won the six of the last seven games to hand Novak his first loss in 23 matches.
“I was doing a very good match until the third set, but Novak had the chance to beat me when I was down 3-Love,” said Del Potro. “But I came back soon and that gave me a little confidence to come back in that set. Then also the crowd wanted to watch more tennis and [it] helped me to play my best tennis in the end. I think it was my best match in this tournament, for sure.”
Del Potro reaches his biggest final since that 2009 US Open, the same event in which he beat Nadal and then Roger Federer consecutively. Now, it’s just Andy Murray, Djokovic and tomorrow Nadal.
“I am playing well. The results show my level,” Del Potro said. “Of course I feel [there are] some things to improve in my game like using slices. Also ,I would like to come to the net more often. But I’m working on that. Every tournament [there] is a chance to do it. I think I’m doing well here in Indian Wells.”
But Nadal will be a serious mountain to climb.
Through four matches at Indian Wells Nadal’s only lost one set. And his wins have been impressive, beating a very hot Ernests Gulbis and Berdych sandwhiched around a hobbled Roger Federer. So Rafa’s playing with a lot of confidence right now and playing freely knowing the expectations really haven’t been there for this event. Remember just a few weeks ago there were serious doubts – in fact published doubts – that he would even be playing in California.
“I don’t have nothing to lose after seven months,” Nadal said. “I did much more than what I dreamed. I’m gonna go on court and enjoy the match and try my best in every moment, as I do usually trying to win, but with good calm.
“I feel very comfortable in this tournament, I feel very happy when I am here. [It] is more relaxing tournament than other ones, and probably that gives me a positive feeling.”
And the conditions do suit him. He’s reached the semifinals eight straight years and he’s made the finals now four times, winning in 2007 and 2009.
I’m sure Nadal, his camp and his fans are glad he did show up. And tennis is glad, too. Win or lose, it’s good to have Nadal back in the mix. But there is still work to do.
Nadal has beaten Del Potro seven of ten times including three straight. On hardcourts, it’s deadlocked at 3-3. Del Potro has won three of their last four on cement, a streak that doesn’t include a Nadal semifinal win at Indian Wells in 2009, the same year Delpo whipped him later at the US Open.
Delpo has a similar game to Berdych. Big power off all wings. Maybe not as strong off the backhand, but Delpo has a little more variety with the added slice. And I think Delpo moves better won’t back down off the serve like Berdych did today. The big difference, though, is upstairs. Where we saw today Berdych crumble when the going to got tough, Delpo didn’t. And he didn’t Friday against Murray.
When Delpo’s full throttle I don’t think anyone can hang with the Big Man. Not Federer, not Nadal and not even Novak.
So will he be on tomorrow? I don’t know. I know with 100% certainty Rafa will fired up as he always is for a big final. He’ll leave it out all out there and he’ll gonna fight like there’s no tomorrow – who knows really when Nadal will be back on hardcourts after this? Del Potro, tough, is maybe living a charmed life this week, beating Murray, Djokovic and now possibly Nadal. If he does it might it be the greatest three day stretch of wins since?
Picking this one is really tough. Oddsmakers surely have Nadal the slight favorite and for good reason. He’s got the wins, got the experience and he is, afterall, Rafa. Delpo, though, has the tools to beat Nadal and he’s done it before in very convincing fashion. He’s not afraid. And Nadal isn’t at his best, not yet, right?
I’ve been picking against Nadal in his last two matches, not believing someone can come back and win a title like this so soon. And guess what? I’m going to do it again. Old habits really do die hard.
My rational is this: Nadal beat an injured Federer and a mentally
challenged soft Berdych. Del Potro isn’t injured and isn’t mentally challenged, though he very well could be (maybe even should be) fatigued after those two big wins. And Rafa hasn’t won a hardcourt title in 2.5 years for a reason. If Gulbis can get a set off Nadal, Del Potro should be able to get two.
The pick: Del Potro in two
Match time for the men’s final is at 5pm ET on ESPN2. The match follows the 3pm ET (noon local) women’s final between Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, also on ESPN2.
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