Sunday Topspin: A Nadal-Djokovic Final

1 and 2: It’s only fitting that the new world #2 takes on the world #1 in the Indian Wells final today.  Let’s see how they got there.

Rafael Nadal‘s semifinal went more or less as expected.  It was close, about as tight as a 6-4, 6-4 match can be, but once Nadal went up a break in the first, the result was never really in doubt.  Juan Martin del Potro is close to his pre-injury form, but he didn’t show quite the confidence necessary to boss Nadal around the court the way that he does at his best.

The semi may well have been Nadal’s best win since the tour finals last November.  The highest-ranked player Nadal has beaten this year is Marin Cilic, and del Potro is at a higher level than that right now.  Given the weak draw and the less-than-convincing wins over Somdev Devvarman and Ivo Karlovic, a straight-setter yesterday was the best possible outcome for Rafa.

The other semifinal, the battle for #2, was oddly inconsistent.  Roger Federer‘s service game was below his usual standard which, combined with Novak Djokovic‘s rock-solid return game, meant that Federer was constantly stuck in ground battles that he isn’t terribly well suited to win.  Djokovic’s steady, deep groundstrokes expose holes in Roger’s game that few other players can, forcing errors that make the Swiss look like he barely belongs on the same court.

Yet Federer won the second set, and he seemed on the brink of taking control of the third before his service game completely collapsed.  It’s a big win for Djokovic–his third in a row over Federer–and it puts him back at his career-high ranking of #2.

The final matchup: Rafa is probably the better overall player; Novak might have the edge on hard courts, and he definitely is the hot player right now.

Yet the last two times these two guys faced each other on hard courts–the only two head-to-head encounters in the last 15 months–Nadal won, on big stages in London and New York.  Djokovic leads the hard-court head-to-head 7-6, and the two players have split a pair of matches at Indian Wells.

The sportsbook line gives Djokovic the slight edge, suggesting he has a 54% chance of winning.  My system concurs, favoring the Serb at 53.5%.

Doubles: I don’t really know what to say about a championship for Xavier Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov in the most loaded doubles draw in recent memory.  They won every single match in a super-tiebreak of 10-7 or 10-8, and had to beat either a top-10 singles player or a top-10 doubles team in all five rounds.

Oddly enough, they aren’t slated to team up in Miami: Malisse is on the entry list with Jamie Murray.  And Murray’s brother, his partner this past week, is apparently planning to join forces with Djokovic.  We aren’t likely to see a doubles draw in Miami quite like this week’s, but it is nonetheless shaping up to make for another event full of surprises.

Challengers: A couple of times recently, I’ve mentioned the young German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, who qualified in Kyoto last week, reached the semifinals, then made it to the semis again this week at the challenger in Guangzhou.  He lost to Uladzimir Ignatik, another promising young player, who went on to win the tournament.  Ignatik, from Belarus, is only 20 years of age, and the win yesterday will inch him further inside the top 200.

Both Stebe and Ignatik will play the challenger in Pingguo next week.  Ignatik is seeded eighth and will play a first-round matchup with a qualifier, while Stebe drew Guangzhou finalist Alexander Kudryavtsev, the fourth seed.

The Indian Wells final is on the card after the women’s final, not before 1 P.M. local.  I’ll be watching!

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