Rafael Nadal will face veteran Radek Stepanek in the second round of the ATP 1000 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The Spaniard comes into the tournament in mixed form, having struggled to win last week’s ATP 500 event in Rio, and will look to gain some confidence after an injury-stricken start to the 2014 season.
The Californian venue was where Nadal’s comeback after a seven month lay off really entered its stride last year. Though he had competed in the previous South American clay court swing, going 2-1 in finals, the ATP 1000 tournament was his biggest win of the comeback prestige wise, beating as he did hard-court Slam Champions Federer and Del Potro en route to the title. More significantly, it was his first non clay court Masters since 2009, also won in Indian Wells.
This year Nadal comes into the tournament as the world number 1, the winner of 2 more hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments on hard in Montreal and Cincinnati and the US Open champion. He also comes in as the Australian Open Runner up. Runner up, however, is not something Nadal is used to seeing beside his name when it comes to Slams. The 13 time slam champ had only ever come up short in 5 Major finals before this season’s Australian Open final. His loss to Wawrinka made it 6.
That loss reduced Nadal to tears. It was bad enough that he suffered an injury in a match in which he had a great chance to win his second Melbourne title- he had never lost a set to Wawrinka in 12 meetings. It was made even worse by the crowd booing him after an injury time out for his back problem. Nadal talked of how much the loss hurt him after the match. But when Nadal is hurt, his comebacks tend to be quite healing, as we saw last year here in the Californian desert.
Stepanek, though, would not have been Nadal’s first choice of opponent to face in his opening match in Indian Wells. The Czech has all the necessary to do some damage to Nadal’s chances of a fourth Indian Wells title. The Czech has one of the more versatile games on the tour. His serve and volley skills will present Nadal with a game the Spaniard does not usually encounter. He is also fresh of a three set win over Denis Istomin in the first round, coming back from a second set wobble to win the third 6-1, so will be feeling comfortable out there on the medium slow courts. The world ranked number 50, a pro since 1996, also has a lot of experience behind him, perhaps the best being his recent two consecutive Davis Cup wins, and can boast wins over players the caliber of Roger Federer and Gustavo Kuerten.
When Nadal faces Stepanek in Indian Wells this weekend, it will be their seventh meeting, with each one so far going the way of the Spaniard. But the majority of those meetings happened before Nadal had even won his first Major in 2005. Their most recent clash was in Miami in 2012. Nadal won 6-2, 6-2. That day he won over 50 percent of his return points on the Stepanek first serve and broke the Czech four times. A day like that for Nadal and anyone is toast, but Nadal has not been having days like that recently, his third set tiebreaker win over Andujar last week in Rio evidence of his less than stellar form, and so the Czech will know he has his chances. He will have to take them. Nadal is the master at turning cloudy days into sunny ones on court, and he has had plenty of sunshine beat down on him in Indian Wells. Beating him there will be tough but for Stepanek right now might be the best time to do it.
Commentary by Christian Deverille