The 29th installment in one of sport’s greatest rivalries will play out tonight at Indian Wells. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have contested an open era record eight grand slam finals, meet at the quarter final stage for the first time in their illustrious careers; a demotion of sorts that can be read as a sign of the times.
For years the pair were entrenched at the top of the rankings, battling for the biggest titles in the game and their respective places in its history. Nadal comes into the clash as the world number five after a lengthy and much storied injury break while Federer’s position at number two is under threat as age threatens to take its toll on his sublime skills.
Writing off legends is a perilous business though. Nadal may be ranked fifth but he did dismantle the man directly above him, fellow Spaniard Ferrer, 6-0 6-2 in the recent Acapulco final. Concerns over the state of his knee remain, particularly on hard courts, but the tour will soon take a turn to his stronghold – the European clay season. Before that Nadal will be looking to prove he is still a contender on hard courts and tonight’s match will serve as a benchmark for the state of his game.
Under ATP rules Federer’s longevity (600-plus matches, being over 31 years of age and more than 12 years on tour) entitles him to skip masters tournaments that are mandatory for the vast majority of players. The Swiss’s 2013 schedule reflects this and he will not be competing in the upcoming Miami masters, instead taking a seven week break before returning in Madrid.
This approach would seem to indicate Federer is looking to maximise his chances at grand slam events rather look to rack up ranking points at smaller tournaments. The world number two went into the Australian Open in January without playing any warm-up tournaments, backing his experience to see him through the opening rounds. This approach was largely successful, with Federer seeing off several tough opponents in the draw before falling to Murray in a five set semi-final. Given his indifferent form at Rotterdam and Dubai, Federer will be desperate to make an impact in Indian Wells.
As always, a match between these two players will also have a historical dimension. It is well known that Nadal leads the head-to-head with 18 victories to Federer’s 10 but a win for Federer would continue a trend towards a closer rivalry in recent years. With his victory in the 2009 Australian Open final, the Spaniard claimed a 13-6 edge along with his first hard court slam. Given the five year age gap between the two men, with Federer reckoned to be exiting his prime as Nadal entered his, and Nadal’s impressive form on all surfaces, it seemed reasonable to expect the head-to-head to become more lopsided in the coming years. A combination of factors including Federer’s exceptional late career form, Nadal’s injury absences and a lower proportion of subsequent meetings on clay mean the head to head since the 2009 Australian Open is 5-4 to Nadal – still in his favour but Federer could level it tonight.
Both players will have their legions of fans following the game courtside and via television. The Roland Garros seeding committee may also be taking a special interest as the tournament’s seven time champion has precious few chances to add ranking points and regain a position in the top four before the French Open. This tournament is one of them and a win for Nadal would make it less likely that the defending champion and greatest clay courter of all time could be seeded number fifth behind Ferrer at Roland Garros. Federer versus Nadal in a masters quarter final is all very well but hopefully there will be more semis and finals to come in grand slam tournaments yet.