A packed house of 16,000 turned out on warm desert night to see two of the greatest tennis players in history meet for the 29th time, but the match never had a chance of turning into an epic. Rafael Nadal, playing well above expectations in his first hard-court tournament since returning to the ATP from knee problems, reached the semifinal of the BNP Paribas Open with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Roger Federer on Thursday.
The first time they met, back in 2004 at Miami on a hard court similar to this, Nadal sprang a surprise by winning, 6-3, 6-3. As soon as it became obvious that Federer's back was going to be a much bigger factor than Nadal's knee, there was no surprise this time. By his normal fleet-footed standards, Federer couldn't move. This might not have been obvious to the uninitiated, but by the time the second Spanish backhand had been slapped back cross court with Roger nowhere near it, the situation was clear.
Federer has had back problems throughout the past few years, but he has played through them. The problem started bothering him again this week, and he mentioned it after beating Stan Wawrinka in the previous round. Asked about it Thursday night, he said: "Same as against Stan. I mean, I could play. Happy to be out there and able to compete. But it's obviously a small issue, and that doesn't work against guys like Rafa."
Pressed on the subject, Federer added: "When I win, nobody talks about it. But now it's not for me to talk about too much, because I don't like to undermine his performance."
And there was no question that Nadal's performance was exceptionally good. Despite a slow court, he was getting the ball to fizz through the night air and faced down Federer's increasingly desperate attempts to break through his defenses.
"The longer the match went on, I realized I had to change up my game," said Federer, who started going for broke with huge forehands, a tactic that at least earned him a break back from 0-2 in the second set. But it couldn't last.
The crowd gasped when Nadal latched on to a perfectly struck cross-court backhand from the Swiss and swatted it down the line off his forehand with such power that it sounded like a rifle shot. If Federer didn't know the game was up before, he must have then.
Nadal asked his great rival if his back was all right when they shook hands at the net, and Federer replied, "Yes, it's OK." But he wasn't fooling Rafa.
"I played a fantastic first set, in my opinion," Nadal said. "The second set was strange. The second set I think Roger didn't fight as usual. Probably he had some problems and didn't feel comfortable enough to keep fighting."
Not for the first time, Nadal called Federer the greatest player of all time when speaking to the crowd. In the news conference, he was challenged on this, because the stats say that he has now beaten the man he calls the greatest 19 times out of 29.
"That's just a fact, a positive fact for me," he said with smile. "But it doesn't change that he has much more tournament victories than me. He has more Grand Slams than me. In Masters 1000 series, we are close."
In fact, they have won the same number of Masters titles on the ATP tour.
"Same? Then more than close," Nadal said with a laugh when he was told. "So that means his career of today is better than mine, and that's the real thing. And if I think I am better than him because I beat him, I think, 19 against 10, I will be very stupid and very arrogant. I think this is not the case."
It certainly isn't, and all that tennis can hope for is that these two amazing champions will be able to continue their rivalry when both are fighting fit.