INDIAN WELLS, California – Rafael Nadal has won 18 of 28 meetings with Roger Federer, a rivalry spanning nearly a decade on every surface and on the biggest stages in tennis.
But Spain’s 11-time Grand Slam champion admitted Wednesday he wasn’t quite sure what to expect when they meet again in the quarter-finals of the Indian Wells Masters, Nadal’s first hard court tournament in nearly a year and just his fourth event since he returned from a seven-month injury absence.
“Always to play against Roger is a pleasure,” Nadal said. “This match arrives early for me, too early to go to the match with the feeling that I can play equal conditions with him.
“I think I am not at that level today, but I’m going to try, as I do always.”
Nadal booked the blockbuster quarter-final with a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory over in-form Latvian Ernests Gulbis.
Gulbis won the title in Delray Beach the week before Indian Wells as a qualifier and, after coming through qualifying here, had beaten two seeded players en route to his showdown with Nadal.
Nadal, meanwhile, was playing only his second match after the injury withdrawal of scheduled third-round opponent Leonardo Mayer and a first-round bye.
Nadal mustered only one break point against Gulbis in the third set, but it was all he needed.
An overhead winner gave Nadal a 15-40 lead in the 11th game, and Gulbis netted a forehand on break point to leave Nadal to serve for the match.
When he finally blasted a forehand winner on his third match point, Nadal gave a little leap of joy, then pumped his fist to the cheers of a packed house.
“It was a good match,” he said. “Was an emotional match. These kind of victories give me confidence, give me positive energy.”
But nowadays he feels far removed from the teenager who beat Federer 6-3, 6-3 in the third round at Miami in 2004 — the first meeting of what would become an epic rivalry.
“Feels like it happened 100 years before,” he said.
Nadal returned from his enforced layoff with a bang, reaching the final of the clay-court tournament at Vina del Mar then lifting trophies at Sao Paulo and Acapulco.
But his oft-injured left knee remains a work in progress, requiring ice and treatment after practice and matches. Even now, pain in the knee prevents him from doing the exercises designed to strengthen his thigh and prevent further injury.
Under the circumstances, Nadal said, just getting to the quarter-finals was a fantastic result.
“I am here, and I think any result tomorrow will be a positive week for me,” he said.