68 minutes in the presence of the great Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — You never know where a great tennis rivalry will pop up next. That’s why, to try and explain it to anyone who doesn’t see the appeal in watching the live-action version of Pong, you might have to find an analogy. It’s like a huge band announcing a concert the night before it happens. Or a rare beer on tap at your local bar for one night only. A once-a-year eclipse. If you love it that much, now’s your chance.

That’s why 16,000 people have gathered around a purple tennis court in the Southern California desert on a random Wednesday in March, because Roger Federer is playing Rafael Nadal in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open. It is the 36th meeting between the most accomplished and most popular players of this generation. That’s an average of about 2.75 meetings per year since their first match, early in 2004.

But this isn’t Yankees-Red Sox or Cowboys-Giants. There aren’t guaranteed home games for each guy each year. Some years have been fat (six meetings in 2006), some extremely lean (0 in 2016). And even when they do meet, it could be halfway around the world from you, and with only a day or two of notice. For those of us in the United States, this is only the seventh of those 36 meetings that has happened on our soil. Those are split up over three cities — Indian Wells, Miami and Cincinnati, the three Masters Series events in America. They’ve never managed to meet at the U.S. Open. Those are the only four tournaments here that the men with 32 Grand Slam titles between them typically play.

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You agree now that it’s a rare thing, and it’s also going to be extinct soon. Federer is 35 now, ancient in tennis years. Nadal is 30 and has battled enough injuries and plays such a physically taxing style that it makes you wonder if he isn’t feeling more like 40. One of these meetings, at some point, will be their last one. And unlike Yankees-Red Sox or Cowboys-Giants, there will be no one else to put on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal jerseys and keep the rivalry alive for future generations.

So that’s why you do it. That’s why you take time off work and fight the Los Angeles traffic, always in its prime, to catch a chapter of one of sports’ best rivalry stories.

*****

It’s hot, pushing 100 degrees, and those with tickets on the East side of the spartanly named Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden are still bearing the full force of the sun, fanning themselves with whatever they can find. On any other day, they probably wouldn’t be dealing with it. But today is Federer-Nadal, and it’s worth a little sweat and sunburn.

It’s just after 5 p.m., the last match of the day session. When the draw came out last week, Federer and Nadal were put in the same quarter with Novak Djokovic, who just lost to the rising Australian Nick Kyrgios in the previous match. If they were to meet, it would be here, in the fourth round. They needed just two wins each to make that happen. Many fans — (guilty) — bought tickets to the Wednesday night session, gambling that if the match came to be, it would happen under the lights. Earlier some of those same fans were at the box office, futilely pleading to change their ticket.

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From practically the first ball, it feels like Federer’s day. He’s whipping shots off both sides, sending Nadal scrambling. He breaks to open the match. The level of play seems a notch higher than what we just witnessed between Djokovic and Kyrgios, but maybe we’re just transfixed by these guys.

In the next game, Federer faces a break point. He gets out of the mess with a pair of gorgeous backhands, backhands that would define the match and recall memories of his heyday, when every shot felt lethal. His late-year renaissance is often attributed, in part, to his newfound tactic of taking his shots early, catching balls as they rise off the bounce. It allows him to step in closer, get the ball back over the net faster, and Nadal has no answer for it on this day. He holds for 2-0 and cruises to a 6-2 win in the first set, which ends in just 34 minutes, before the crowd can finish its first cold drink.

Nothing changes in the second set. Genius hitting from Federer. Bewildered looks from Nadal. An early break. Everywhere there are Federer hats and Nadal shirts. A woman craning her neck through a crowd of people near an upper deck railing gives up her spot so her husband can get a glimpse of this absolute clinic. The crowd feels frozen, caught between getting behind Nadal to charge back and force a third set or just sit back and enjoy the display from the greatest tennis champion ever. That’s how it is with these guys — just watching them play is the win; the result is secondary.

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When it’s over, in an hour and eight minutes, Federer has won the second and final set 6-3, finishing it off with a break of Nadal’s serve on yet another surgical backhand that paints the line. It’s so close to being out that the crowd doesn’t know how to react, but Nadal doesn’t even bother to challenge it. He knows he’s licked today. He walks toward the net, and Federer waves his arms up to let the fans know it’s OK to cheer now. “It was not my day,” Nadal would say afterward, in the understatement of the tournament.

It’s a complete blowout, but no one but the most ardent Nadal fans will likely be dissatisfied. We all got to see Federer-Nadal, some for the first time, and that’s what matters.

*****

Before this year, this rivalry felt like it was headed toward that extinction, and fast. They met only once in 2015 — at a tournament in Switzerland, a tier below the Masters events — and went the entire 2016 season without playing each other, both battling injuries. Federer missed two majors, the first of his career, in 2016. Nadal withdrew from the French Open he cherishes with a wrist injury that then also caused him to miss Wimbledon. He would then lose in the fourth round at the U.S. Open, making it eight straight Slam appearances without at least a semifinal appearance, his longest-ever drought.

But when the calendar turned to 2017, somehow there they were at January’s Australian Open, cruising through the draw. Djokovic, the six-time champion in Melbourne, was dispatched early. So too was world No. 1 Andy Murray. Fans started whispering about a potential Federer-Nadal final. Sure enough, it happened — their first title match at a Grand Slam since 2014. Federer won in five sets.

Less than two months later, they were squaring off here in the fourth round. It was their earliest meeting in a tournament since their first match, way back in 2004 in Miami. That’s a product of the slip in their rankings — Nadal was the No. 5 seed here, Federer No. 9.

This, though, was no ordinary fourth-round match. And it didn’t feel like a goodbye party either. Not the way Federer was ripping the ball to all corners of the court. Instead of a bittersweet farewell, there’s every reason to think we’ll be seeing both Federer and Nadal around in the biggest matches for awhile. Go see one, if you ever get the opportunity.

“I’m having a lot of fun on the court,” Federer told Tennis Channel afterward in a booth interview. They showed him highlights of the match as they continued to chat, electric backhand after electric backhand making mincemeat of Nadal.

“I’m very pleased,” he said. “Jeez.”

He was impressed by his own work, and why shouldn’t he be? About 16,000 other people feel the same.