Federer, Nadal, and Semifinal-or-Later Streaks

The Indian Wells men’s draw has been released, and a big question has been answered.  Rafael Nadal, about as dangerous a floater as can be imagined with a #5 seed, landed in Roger Federer‘s quarter.  (Sorry Roger, it had to happen to someone, and David Ferrer has suffered enough lately.)

If Fed and Rafa both win three matches, they’ll face each other in a quarterfinal match.  That’s something that’s never happened before.  The pair has met 28 times, 26 of them in a semifinal or final.  The only exceptions are their first match in 2004, when Nadal was seeded 32nd in Miami, and a round-robin pairing at the 2011 tour finals.  Ignoring the round-robin, that’s 26 matches in a row in one of the last two rounds of an event.

That’s a historically great streak, but it’s not the record.  In fact, one player is a part of two streaks–the only two streaks–that are better.

Jimmy Connors is 1st, with 28 consecutive semis or finals against Ivan Lendl, and 2nd, with 27 consecutive semis or finals against (who else?) John McEnroe.  He’s also eighth (21 straight against Bjorn Borg) and 12th (14 with Ilie Nastase).

Until the threat of this week’s draw, Federer and Nadal were right on Connors’s tail.  If Roger and Rafa meet in the quarters, the heir presumptive pair will have to include Novak Djokovic.

Here’s the all-time top ten:

Streak  Player1          Player2           
28      Jimmy Connors    Ivan Lendl        
27      Jimmy Connors    John McEnroe      
26      Rafael Nadal     Roger Federer     
23      Rafael Nadal     Novak Djokovic    
22      Stefan Edberg    Boris Becker      
22      Roger Federer    Novak Djokovic    
22      John McEnroe     Ivan Lendl        
21      Bjorn Borg       Jimmy Connors     
19      Stefan Edberg    Ivan Lendl        
17      Ivan Lendl       Boris Becker

If Nadal stays #5 for long (unlikely as that seems), both the all-time #3 and #4 streaks could be halted.  But as long as Federer stays within the top four, the current #6 streak will climb the rankings.

Of course, there are a couple of other combinations with the potential to crack this list, even reach the top:

Streak  Player1         Player2        
11      Andy Murray     Roger Federer  
10      Novak Djokovic  Andy Murray

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.  It took five years for Fed and Nadal to get from 11 up to 26.  As the top of the list shows, it takes two consistently great players to put together a streak like this.

All is not lost, though.  If they play in the quarters, they’ll just have to shift their focus to a new record: consecutive meetings in quarterfinals or later.  27 straight would put them behind Connors-McEnroe (32), Connors-Lendl (29), and one pair they’re unlikely to chase down: Nadal-Djokovic (29).