Rafael Nadal needed a big win and he got one Friday at the Indian Wells Masters Series. The former No. 1 has languished all year and entered the first Masters event without even a Top 50 win on the season! But this week in the desert where he’s won three times before he’s finally found some confidence and some game.
Playing his best match of the year, Rafa notched his first Top 10 win beating World No. 6 Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3.
“[Nishikori] started so quickly, hitting all the balls very well and serving great,” Nadal said. “Then he started to miss some first serves, and I returned his second serves aggressively. That was so important in the development of the match.
“My return was important. At the same time, my serve was enough good for this match.”
It didn’t look good early for Rafa who found himself down 1-3 and points to go down 1-4 (and two breaks down would have done in Nadal). But a late challenge by Nadal kept him within a break. Things then click. Rafa stormed back winning 8 of the next 9 games before Nishikori regained his composure. But it was too late for the Japenese who whipped Nadal the last time they played over the summer.
“I felt strong mentally,” Nadal said. “I had the right energy. I was able to fight for every ball. I was able to keep going during the whole match and believe in myself again, and that made me play with more energy and less nerves.
“That’s so important for me. It’s the way I’ve played my whole career. This week has been very, very positive.”
If you missed Rafa of the old, you saw some hope today that that Rafa still exists. The question is, can he do it again tomorrow against the boogeyman, Novak Djokovic?
Djokovic looked a little patchy against JW Tsonga but he got through in straight sets 7-6(2), 7-6(2) to win his 15th straight match at Indian Wells and 20th win of the year.
“I felt like I was playing well, very solid; had the match under control; serving 5-4, 30/0,” said Djokovic. “Then all of a sudden, I was not putting a first serve in. He started mixing up with a slice and decided to play a bit different tactically. That got me off a little bit the balance and the rhythm. He started playing better. He started swinging more freely from the forehand corner, especially. It was very close.
“But, I take positives out of today’s match, the fact that I have played somebody that was feeling good throughout the week, somebody that serves very, very big and plays very quick and efficient, precise forehands. He gave me a lot of trouble today to win in straight sets and to win in two tie-breaks. I think it’s going to help definitely my confidence and mentally I will take that.”
So the semifinals are set. We’ll have a multi-time former champion against a first-timer Sunday. Who will it be? On to my picks!
David Goffin v Milos Raonic
I think it’s pretty clear as soon as the Big 4 era crumbles, that is Djokovic comes off his high, Milos Raonic is going major, major factor. Maybe even a No. 1. His time will come. For now it’s trying to win a first Masters.
Raonic skipped out on the post-Australian fluff mending an adductor his ripped during his semifinal loss to Murray in Melbourne. But he’s returned in full flight at Indian Wells reaching his second straight final in the desert, this time without losing a set after impressive wins over Tomas Berdych and the other night Gael Monfils.
Across the net Saturday will be the surprise of the tournament, David Goffin. Did anyone have the Belgian making it this far? No one I bet.
Goffin’s had quite the trip, saving match points against Frances Tiafoe in his opener, staying focused just enough in the Stan Wawrinka rollercoaster and then out-toughing Marin Cilic in the heat. And for what it’s worth, he’s beaten Milos Roanic before in Basel 18 months ago.
“A tall one and a small one,” assessed Goffin. “Big server. I think it’s good conditions for him here with small balls and balls are really fast, so it’s tough to return. But I have weapons to return, like I did today against Marin, and I beat Milos once in Basel.”
While Goffin’s a better player now than when he beat Milos, but Raonic is way better.
“He’s playing well. He’s taking the ball early,” Raonic said Thursday. “He’s trying to maybe not overpower but take away time from his opponents.
“You see that he’s trying to take time away and maybe getting guys to panic and not set up their swings. But I think when it comes to that kind of stuff I’m pretty good at getting things to my term. If he wants to stay on the baseline I’m going to have to try to push him back.”
And with his power Raonic can and will push him back, and do more. And while he might not have the raw talent of Goffin, the Canadian’s serve and experience decides it for me.
The Pick: Raonic in two
Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal
At the start of the event I didn’t see Act 48 in this rivalry happening, not with the draw and not with the way Nadal stumbled into the event after two losses on clay. But credit to Rafa, he got some good wins this week beating Fernando Verdasco, Alex Zverev and today Nishikori and is playing well.
And while I’ll root hard for him Saturday, he’s not getting another win, not against Djokovic. Novak’s owned Nadal of late winning the last five and 11 straight sets since their French Open final in 2014. And the matches haven’t even been close including a 6-1, 6-2 destruction in Doha which gave Djokovic the 24-23 series lead.
“I won the past couple of times we played against each other, so maybe that can give me a slight mental advantage coming into the court,” said Djokovic. “But everything is open. It’s the semifinals. We both have won multiple titles here and hopefully we can come up with some good tennis. I’m hoping I can deliver my best game tomorrow.”
However, Novak hasn’t been in peak form this week, so there’s some hope. I just don’t think Rafa has the sustained firepower – especially off the weakening serve – to rattle Djokovic who will be up to play his rival.
Rafa used to have a decent serve followed by the massive forehand. Now the serve is weak and the forehand just doesn’t have the zip, though don’t ask Nishikori that.
And everything in Nadal’s game plays right into Novak’s strength. He’ll punish Rafa’s serve and then wear him down from the ground, forcing him into bad misses, as we’ve seen. So unless Djokovic has a really awful day, Nadal’s in trouble here.
Djokovic has won the title four times including the last two years, so he loves the court. Nadal likes it, too. But Rafa also likes Chatrier and remember what Novak did to Nadal on his 29th birthday?
“I enjoy a rivalry against Rafa,” said Djokovic. “It’s probably the most exciting rivalry I have in my career. Hopefully we can play many more matches.”
And they will.
The Pick: Djokovic in two
ESPN has live coverage starting a 2pm ET.
INDIAN WELLS SATURDAY SCHEDULE
STADIUM 1 start 11:00 am
ATP –  D. Goffin (BEL) vs  M. Raonic (CAN)
ATP –  N. Djokovic (SRB) vs  R. Nadal (ESP)
Not Before 4:00 pm
WTA – Doubles Final – J. Goerges (GER) / K. Pliskova (CZE) vs B. Mattek-Sands (USA) / C. Vandeweghe (USA)
Not Before 5:00 pm
ATP – Doubles Final –  V. Pospisil (CAN) / J. Sock (USA) or F. Lopez (ESP) / M. Lopez (ESP) vs  P. Herbert (FRA) / N. Mahut (FRA)
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