After nearly 15 years of some combination of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at their peak, the ATP is perhaps at its most uncertain point in years.
With the calendar turned to the first Masters 1000 event of the year in Indian Wells, Murray, despite winning the title in Dubai, exited the tournament days ago, losing over the weekend in his first match to Vasek Pospisil.
Though that was a seismic upset, Wednesday’s results will carry the news for far longer, as the so-called “Quarter of Death” paid off in a pair of blockbusters. After Nick Kyrgios smoked Sascha Zverev, Djokovic wore down Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal out-clutched Fernando Verdasco, the most loaded quarter in recent tennis history delivered a pair of rematches of recent matches in Federer vs Nadal and Djokovic vs Kyrgios.
The winners of the first meetings also won the second, as Kyrgios again was nearly completely untroubled on serve against Djokovic, while Federer was nearly perfect in eliminating his main rival.
Kyrgios wasn’t able to replicate the historic 25-ace effort from Acapulco, but his second win in as many tries over Djokovic played out similarly, as the man many consider the greatest returner of all-time couldn’t get a read on the mercurial Aussie’s serve. Djokovic started flat coming off his late-night effort over del Potro (Wednesday’s match was not also played at night because both Djokovic and Kyrgios remain alive in the doubles draw) and was broken in the first game of the match in what turned out to be the lone break of the afternoon.
Kyrgios carried that break all the way home for a 6-4 first set, followed by a second set tiebreaker in which Djokovic, understanding how hard it would be to recover from a deficit against the big server, spiked a ball in frustration after losing the first point. With the lead in hand, Kyrgios again did not relinquish it, running away with the breaker.
Djokovic accomplished a couple relevant milestones in his brief run, scoring his 300th career Masters win (matched only by Federer and Nadal) and a record 30th straight victory at Indian Wells, but heads to Miami even further from reclaiming the No. 1 ranking and with questions still swirling about his level of play.
As for the main event after the main event, Federer played his best match since waxing Tomas Berdych in the third round of the Australian Open, giving Nadal no breathing room in a swift 6-2, 6-3 win, marking the first time in their 36 meetings that the righty has beaten the lefty in three straight.
The much-fabled backhand change for Federer held up just as it did in the Australian Open final, giving the 35 year old peace of mind that he didn’t need to press in order to protect his weaker side. Nadal’s shot depth was arguably as weak as it had been at any point in his resurgent season, but it becomes a chicken-and-egg debate: did Federer tee off with clean winners off both wings because of Nadal’s depth or were Nadal’s shots doomed from the jump because of how well Federer was clocking the ball? It was some of both, though much more this match spoke to the unassailable play of the Swiss.
Breaking in the first game of the match just like Kyrgios, Federer led this one wire-to-wire despite the grittier court that served Nadal’s top-spin better than the grass-like court in Australia.
Both players aptly summed up the match in different ways. Nadal tipped his cap and was, as usual, reflective in press, saying in part, “Tried to serve quicker, change directions, changed return position. Today it didn’t work. Simple as that,” while Federer merely laughed at one point when being shown a highlight reel of his incredible performance during a visit with Tennis Channel.
The big question now becomes: Has Federer’s backhand improvement altered the tenor of this rivalry? Yes, in the respect that Federer is noticeably more comfortable overall and “panics” less in the name of protecting that side, but as with any adjustment, now it’s about the adjustment-to-the-adjustment. Once might have been an accident but now Nadal knows he might need to adapt past the patterns that saw him get the better of this legendary matchup for roughly a decade.
Federer, now the last remaining former champion and also member of the Big Four, will face Kyrgios in the quarterfinals, which also features complete surprise names like Pablo Carreno Busta and Pablo Cuevas along with Kei Nishikori and Jack Sock.
-Stan Wawrinka nearly joined the favorites on their way to Miami, but managed to break up-and-comer Yoshihito Nishioka twice to stay in the match before winning a deciding tiebreaker in the third set. Wawrinka has never even reached the final of a hardcourt Masters but is the tentative favorite in the lesser half of the draw.
-Big names in the women’s draw have managed to survive, although top seed Angie Kerber is still searching for her best self after another pre-quarterfinal loss, this time to Elena Vesnina. Despite the loss, Kerber will at least temporarily regain World No. 1 from the injured Serena Williams.
-Still around on the women’s side? Backing up her run to the final down under, 36 year old Venus Williams continues to grit her way through in three-setters.