Two months after losing his advantage for the first time in the most enduring rivalry in the history of men’s tennis, Rafael Nadal will get a chance to square things up once more when taking on Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at Indian Wells on Saturday. The two men, both of whom have already enshrined their place among the greats of the game, will be squaring off for a record 48th time.
And for the first time, Djokovic will go into a meeting between the two with a head-to-head advantage, thanks to a straight-sets demolition in the final of the Qatar Open in January to put him up 24-23. The Serbian has also won the last five meetings overall and the last six on hard courts, dating back to the U.S. Open final in 2013. Unquestionably, it is a rivalry Djokovic has owned of late.
But then the Serbian has ruled over everyone else in men’s tennis for more than a year. As dominant a world No. 1 as there’s been, the sole defeat on Djokovic’s record this year came when he pulled out of a match against Feliciano Lopez in Dubai with an eye infection.
At the first Masters 1000 event of the year this week, he has dropped just the one set, against qualifier Bjorn Fratangelo in the second round. In the quarterfinals he ousted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in two tie-break sets to set up another meeting with his greatest foe. But despite the dominance he has held over Nadal in recent meetings, he is expecting an intense battle on Saturday.
“He's a great competitor, a great fighter,” Djokovic said. “He's been getting himself out of trouble a few times this week and showing why he's one of the best players in the history of the game. He never gives up. He always makes you play an extra shot. Always makes you earn the win. I'm going into tomorrow's match knowing what's expected of me and I know how to get ready.
“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. But everything is open. It's the semi-finals. 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.”
Nadal certainly had to dig himself out of trouble in the fourth round. The Spaniard was even down a match point to young German Alexander Zverev before he recovered to win 7-5 in the final set. He seized upon the second chance in the quarterfinals, rebounding impressively from an early deficit to beat world No. 6 Kei Nishikori 6-4 6-3. Still looking to get back to his best after a hugely disappointing 2015, Nadal insists he is looking forward to the challenge of testing himself against the very best.
“I had a tough draw from the beginning,” he said. “To be able to be where I am today, in the semifinals, and especially with the victory of today against a top, top player, that's something very important for my confidence. It's very important to believe in myself too, and winning the way that I did.
“Let's try my best tomorrow. Let's keep playing with the same energy. And we'll see what's going on. I know Novak is playing unbelievable, so it's difficult. But I am here to keep enjoying, keep trying my best, and keep playing with the right energy.”
Nadal has won the title three times in Indian Wells, but Djokovic is going for a record fifth crown this year, and has also won two of his three meetings with Nadal at the California event.
Match time: Following the completion of the first semifinal between David Goffin and Milos Raonic, which will get underway at 2 p.m. EDT.
TV channel: ESPN
Live stream: Watch ESPN