Commentary

Dynamic duo takes rivalry to desert

Updated: March 17, 2012, 8:52 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The hype machine will speed to full crank should Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic meet Sunday for the BNP Paribas Open final, just as they did in a scintillating finale here a year ago, just as they did during January's instant classic of an Australian Open final and just as they did at last year's Wimbledon, U.S. Open and three other finals.

But first, there'll be a 28th Roger Federer-Nadal meeting, which was assured Friday when Federer easily vanquished a doomed and distracted Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal barely escaped the dangerous David Nalbandian. One of those two titans will face Djokovic or John Isner in the final.

The Federer-Nadal matchup had not been secured but a moment when the gamesmanship, one mixed with the obvious mutual respect without particular friendship, began. After finishing, Federer intimated that the slowing of the hard-court surfaces -- perhaps none slower than the Indian Wells surface -- benefited Nadal. Nadal said by reaching the semifinals in the first tournament he's played since the Australian Open loss to Djokovic, the pressure was now off of him.

Of course, the two don't have to be friends. That can wait. The part that will not wait -- unless the 70 percent chance of rain forecast for Saturday is realized -- is yet another meeting between two guys who have combined for 26 major titles.

The prize for Federer and Nadal is always the same, but their paths could not be more different these days. Federer is playing terrific tennis, and has been since losing to Djokovic in the famed U.S. Open semifinal. The question of whether Federer will win another major title has as much to do with whether his game -- especially a shaky backhand -- can stay solid over five sets as with how he competes against formidable competition. Djokovic is trouble for Nadal, but Federer denied him the one major he did not win, the French.

Yet Federer is not much of a puzzle to Nadal. Outside of the lightning-fast London indoor courts at the Barclays year-end championships, Federer hasn't beaten Nadal in nearly three years since Madrid back in 2009.

For all the consternation about Nadal's game, he has only one mountain to climb, and that is beating Djokovic, who has taken him out seven straight times, all in finals.

The real interest outside of the wonder and nostalgia of their meeting is whether Federer can even reach another final when Nadal stands in his way in a semifinal.

On Friday, having won a tournament in Marseille and lost his past three tournaments to Federer, del Potro stepped on the court Friday with an opportunity.

However, he was cooked by the first game, a marathon that took 10 minutes. Del Potro lost on two break points and then was victimized by a controversial call on the second deuce, an ace that del Potro was convinced was wide. He challenged, and the challenge system malfunctioned. He lost the game, his focus and ultimately the match 6-3, 6-2.

Federer, however, was no innocent bystander. He served hard and well, and forced the massive 6-foot-7 del Potro to defend the net, to move, to be active. Federer victimized del Potro by recognizing just how far back on the baseline he stood on returns to dissect him with drop shots. After losing another challenge to Federer in the second set, del Potro turned his racket around, pretending the grip was a rifle, and took an imaginary shot at the replay board. He was that far gone.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireWill Rafael Nadal's struggles against David Nalbandian be a factor when he takes on Roger Federer at Indian Wells?

"Should have," "Could have," and "if" are, for the most part, loser's words. Nalbandian had a match he should have won, and, inexplicably, did not. He played coolly and easily, served hard and consistently -- a wonderful contrast to Nadal's overheated fury. Nalbandian took the first set 6-4 and with Nadal serving 4-5, 30-30, was two points from the match. Nadal employed the strategy of hitting his forehand harder, more relentlessly to escape.

At 5-5, 15-all, Nalbandian gave Nadal the deadliest of gifts: an opening in the form of a weak put-away volley. Nadal raced to his left and ripped a crosscourt forehand for a winner. At 30-40, after a full set and nine games into the second, Nadal had secured only his second break-point chance of the entire match. Nalbandian double-faulted, and Nadal held to win the set.

It should also be noted that Nadal is still alive to win a doubles championship here. Coincidentally, he took control of the third set against Nalbandian with a little-used weapon: the serve and volley. He took the Argentine out wide in the ad court and sprinted forward. He served-and-volleyed four times in the third set, won all four points, which gave him enough of a cushion to escape his own inability to serve out a 5-2 lead. He survived a difficult match classically, by fighting harder, by using his doubles skill, by using weapons he doesn't even acknowledge are exactly in his arsenal and laughing at the idea -- even though it finally provided the tactical advantage that finally unlocked the Nalbandian puzzle -- of himself as a serve-and-volley player.

"Ah, I hit fantastic volleys this afternoon," he said. "But it is something that I'm not able to do every time. I am able to do it on a few occasions and today was one of those. It depends on the situation. When I go to the net, I didn't decide before the serve I was going to serve and volley."

Nadal leads Federer 18-9 in their lifetime head-to-head matchups, but the two have never played at Indian Wells.

"They are always special matches, but even if it's not the final, I playing against Roger always means a little more because I am probably playing against the best in history."