Rafa, Djokovic don't raise a racket

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The rigors of professional tennis are daunting and well-documented but, seriously, what are we to make of this?

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the ATP World Tour's No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players, respectively, advanced to the final of Sony Open Tennis on Friday without raising a racket.

Really.

Both men's semifinals never occurred because Kei Nishikori (groin) and Tomas Berdych (gastroenteritis) pulled out of their afternoon and evening matches. A double walkover. It was, in fact, the first time there were two semifinal walkovers in an ATP-level tournament in the 46 years of the Open era.

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Tomas Berdych had played terrific ball in Miami until a virus forced him to withdraw.

"It's not what we wish for," said a grave Adam Barrett, the tournament director. "But, unfortunately, we have been unlucky today. It's never happened before.

"I ran into Cliff Buchholz, who was the tournament director before me for many, many years. He looked at me and said, 'Adam, that's never happened before. I think you just set a record.'

"I said, 'Cliff, not a record I want to set.'"

The official announcement wasn't made in the stadium until about 7:25, nearly 90 minutes after it was first learned. It was greeted, predictably, by boos and whistles.

Nishikori said he felt a twinge during his quarterfinal victory over Roger Federer; it's an injury he has been nursing for five weeks.

"Yeah, it's really sad, of course, semifinal in a big tournament," Nishikori said. "I was really excited to play here the semis. But, unfortunately, I couldn't move side to side. Just tried to warm up today, but I couldn't move."

Historically, Nishikori has been fragile. This was the second walkover he's granted, but he also has retired from 11 career matches.

Berdych excused himself after losing complete control of his body early Friday. We will spare you the gruesome details he shared, but he concluded, "I lost so much of the liquid and all the possible energy I could have."

The No. 7-seeded player ruled out food poisoning since he's had chicken and rice for dinner at the same restaurant for six straight days. Doctors told him he had contracted a virus.

And so, for the 40th time -- it's a staggering number, really -- Rafa will oppose Djokovic in a tennis match. Barring any more unexpected announcements, they'll play for the championship on Sunday afternoon [2:30 ET, ESPN].

Djokovic has been experiencing some remarkably good fortune lately; he was the recipient of not one but two walkovers in this event, the first coming in the third round when Florian Mayer withdrew, also with an injured groin.

"Obviously, Nadal is playing some great tennis this week," Djokovic said after his afternoon match was canceled. "I have seen a couple matches of Rafa's. He's hitting the ball really well, feeling confident on this court.

"He never won this tournament, so I think that is an extra motivation for him."

Said Nadal, "It's very unlucky, very unusual for something that can happen. Sorry for Kei, sorry for Tomas and sorry for the tournament, especially sorry for the fans."

A few hours later, Paul Annacone was musing about the power of a potential Nadal-Djokovic match. He no longer has a horse in the race -- he once coached Pete Sampras and, more recently, Roger Federer -- but he's still following the men's game closely.

"Novak's Novak," said Annacone, who was headed to Charleston with his new charge, Sloane Stephens. "He doesn't lose much. Winning Indian Wells helps him, and it comes after an unbelievable finish to last year. If Rafa gets through, it could be another titanic battle, which would be fun to watch."

And, without a single semifinal stroke, that's what we've got.

Rafa holds the 22-17 head-to-head edge, but in recent years the matchup has been something of a dead heat. They've met in six Grand Slam singles finals, splitting them.

"Only chance to win against Novak is play to the limit, play my best, and wait that he's not going to have his best day," Nadal said. "I know I have to be solid with my serve. I need to play aggressive, no doubt about that. That's it.

"We are playing in a court that today probably is his favorite court. That's hard. He arrives to the final with good confidence after winning in Indian Wells."

Nadal won their last major encounter, at the US Open, and it seems to have motivated Djokovic to pick up his intensity. Djokovic won the title in Beijing and their round-robin match at the Barclay's year-end tournament in London, by identical 6-3, 6-4 scores.

"I knew that both of the matches that I lost in [the] Australia Open and Dubai to Roger [Federer] were close matches," Djokovic said. "I lost in a few points. I knew my game is there. I just need to keep on moving, keep on working hard and mentally believe that I can, you know, come back winning the big events.

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Rafael Nadal will have plenty of recovery after a tough tussle with Milos Raonic in his last match.

"It's what happened in Indian Wells. I came back from set down in several matches to win the tournament, and it gave me a lot of wind in the back, a lot of confidence that I carried on in Miami."

Make no mistake, professional tennis is hell on the human body.

The fact that Indian Wells and Miami, two 96-draw events, are played back-to-back each March is a treat for tennis fans. But for the players it is difficult, especially the ones who go deep in both tournaments.

It was only two years ago that Nadal himself, citing his chronically ailing knees, pulled out of his semifinal with Andy Murray at this very event.

On Thursday night, Alexandr Dolgopolov was feeling something less than fresh. He lost to Berdych in straight sets, but he fought to the end, losing a tiebreaker. Afterward, he was unusually honest -- and, in a sense, might have been speaking for Nishikori and Berdych after a tough three-week stretch.

Despite a tennis-free Friday, neither player stands to benefit from the rest.

"I think if I don't play well on Sunday, [it's] not going to be because I didn't play today," Nadal said.

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