Despite a 7-6(5), 6-2 loss today in the Indian Wells semifinals to Novak Djokovic, it was still a positive week for Rafael Nadal. Nadal might never get back to the top, but in the last 24 hours he showed flashes of his former No. 1 self, and that’s enough to hold out some hope he’s finally turned the corner.
In their 48th meeting today, Nadal took advantage of an error-prone Djokovic early, breaking the Serb. But Djokovic came right back as the two former Indian Wells champions when toe-to-toe like the did years ago. Playing with fury, Nadal brushed off multiple break points at 3-3 then held a set point with Djokovic serving 4-5 but was denied.
Djokovic jumped out to lead in the breaker 5-2 and held on to win it 7-5 to take his 12th straight set over Rafa.
And one sensed the air was out of the Nadal balloon.
In the second, Djokovic proved too strong running away with the win, his sixth straight over Nadal and 10th in their last 11 meetings to increase his record over the Spaniard to 26-24.
“I work hard to be able to come up with the best game when it’s the most needed,” said Djokovic. “Obviously today the first set was decided in one or two points; second set was very close. Midway through the second I broke his serve, and last three games I played very well.
“So I’m just glad to overcome this challenge that is one of the greatest in sport, as it always is playing against Rafa. I’m taking the positives out of today’s performance and hoping that I can finish off this tournament tomorrow with another great performance.”
For Rafa, like I said there is now hope. There were signs of vintage Nadal and had he converted that set point in the first, who knows. But this week with his win yesterday over Nishikori and to have played Djokovic close – unlike their last 3-4 meetings which have been blowouts – this effort should give him a needed confidence boost for Miami and for the upcoming clay season which begins in a month.
“I think I played well for a set and a half; then I think he played well the last part,” said Nadal. “I played bad again with my serve at 3-2, and then he finished playing well the last two games. Played at high level.
“I had my chances in the first set. I felt for a moment that I was competing at the highest level possible. At the beginning of the tie-break and at the end of the first set with some 0/15 that I had, I made a few mistakes with my forehand. That’s the only thing.
“I believe that with a little bit more confidence on my forehand at the end of that first set it would have been a better chance.”
Djokovic, who wins his 16th straight match in the desert, moves on to face Milos Raonic in search of his 27th career Masters crown, 62nd overall.
The fireballing Canadian outlasted the pesky David Goffin 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Actually, credit Goffin for breaking Raonic’s serve a couple of times and creating problems for the big man. But Raonic was too strong, too powerful and to resilient in the end.
“I feel like I did things right,” said Raonic. “I sort of lost my way a little bit in the second set, and it’s important to me sort of to be able to recognise that and get things back on the right track and play and finish off with some good tennis like I did.”
So our first Masters final of the season is set.
Novak Djokovic v Milos Raonic
As I said yesterday and as we saw today, I don’t think Djokovic is at his top level. Then again, after missing a month Raonic probably isn’t either. But if Milos, with that arm canon, can force a couple of tiebreaks anything is possible.
“I feel like even when I’m not playing my best [this year] I’m able to find the answer and the solutions. I feel like I’m competing well. I feel like I’m dealing with the situations much better,” articulated Raonic.
“Definitely have been playing higher level this year, but I think also when I have had those difficult moments or let’s say some kind of crisis throughout matches, I have found solutions better. I think I have been much more regimented about that and a lot more disciplined with myself and a lot more understanding about the way I need to go about things during the match. And also analyzing and adjusting and accepting things during matches.”
Djokovic, though, has dominated the Canadian winning all five meetings and 13 of 14 sets, most recently at the Australian last year. The match itself is pretty simple, it’s Raonic’s booming serve against Djokovic’s steady return. And based on history, form and playing surface, the edge goes to Djokovic.
“Milos is probably playing the best tennis that he has ever played,” said Djokovic. “His serve was phenomenal before the start of this season, but this season it seems like he has improved even more, especially the second serve. He’s going for it more. He’s not giving you the same look.
“I will try to prepare myself tactically, analyze his game with my team. We are playing finals, so I’ll try to also use the experience that I have had playing in many Masters 1000 finals in this tournament, as well.
“Even though he hasn’t played too many Masters finals, he’s still very strong mentally. He’s very calm on the court. He’s very composed. He’s showing virtues that are characteristic for some more experienced and older players. That’s one of the impressive things about him.”
Novak just doesn’t seem to be losing these kinds of matches in finals to the lower ranked players like a Raonic. And he’s far too comfortable on the Indian Wells court where he’s won four times already.
So while Raonic might scrape a set here or there if that serve gets hot, I think Djokovic prevails.
The pick: Djokovic in two
ESPN has live coverage of Indian Wells finals day starting a 2pm ET with the women’s title match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka.
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