Meeting no. 39 on the way

 - Alix Ramsay

The two greats of the game will be meeting for the 39th time in their careers.

Nice to see you again man!©FFT/Corinne Dubreuil

When these two meet, the historians always sit up and take note: Roger Federer, he of the 20 Grand Slam titles, against Rafael Nadal, he of the 17 Grand Slam titles. This is always likely to be a cracker.

Roger is in a good run©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

They will be meeting for the 39th time in their careers with a place in the final of the BNP Paribas Open at stake. But whether they are playing in a major final, a practice set or a game of tiddlywinks, these two always take it seriously. As Rafa was keen to point out.

Always take it seriously

“If I don't see this match special is because I don't love this sport and I don't appreciate the story of this sport,” he said. “So is not my case. Of course it's a special match.

“But, yes, at the end of the day is another tennis match, no? It's not that we are playing chess [in the semi-final]. It's still a tennis match. Even if it's between us, even if it's more special than any other match, still a tennis match and the goal always is the same: Go on court and play at the highest level possible.”

Ready and excited to play against Roger!© FFT / Corinne Dubreuil

To break down how Rafa and Roger match up, you just have to look at the numbers. Rafa leads their career rivalry 23-15; Roger has won two of their three matches in Indian Wells; Roger leads their hard court rivalry 11-9 and he has won their last five hard court matches. And Rafa hasn’t beaten Roger since the Australian Open in 2014.

My colleagues, those of a historical bent, at L’Equipe have put this last little factoid into perspective. Back in January of 2014, Novak Djokovic had only won six Grand Slam titles, Stefanos Tsitsipas was ranked No.1979 in the world, Tommy Haas, now the tournament director in Indian Wells, was the world No.12 and Felix Auger Aliassime was only 13 years old. A lot of things can change in five years, it seems.

But sadly for Rafa, a lot can happen in the space of a few hours. As he worked his way to the quarter-finals, he felt absolutely fine. Then, when he got to work against Karen Khachanov on Friday afternoon, he soon felt a familiar and depressing pain in his right knee.

Would Rafa be ready?

He started on the back foot – or possibly knee – against the Russian in the first set, fighting his way back from an early break, and only managed to gain the advantage in the tiebreak, having watched four set points slip from his grasp as Khachanov served to stay in the set at 4-5.

Then, three games into the second set, Rafa called for the trainer. His right knee needed urgent work and taping. And even though he broke after that attention, he could not hold onto his lead and they headed to another tiebreak. Raf won that to close out the match 7-6, 7-6 but he was not overly optimistic that he would be ready to play Roger the next day.

Rafa needs to recover with his right knee injury© FFT / Corinne Dubreuil

“Hopefully [I can play tomorrow],” he said. “It's difficult for me to answer. Nobody can guarantee anything about what can happen the next day because, in this world, anything can happen. But of course my goal and my idea is be ready for tomorrow. Then happened what happened on court, so I cannot guarantee how I going to wake up tomorrow morning.”

Roger, on the other hand, was in fine form as he got the better of Hubert Hurkacz 6-4, 6-4. The 22-year-old Pole is clearly as good player in the making but facing his idol on a big show court for a place in his first Masters 1000 semi-final, he was no match for, arguably, the greatest player the sport has ever seen. He tried, he did well at times, but the Mighty Fed was just too much for him.

“I feel good, you know, playing matches now,” Federer said. “Not I haven't in the past, but I think it was another one of those matches where, you know, I think I don't need too many chances to break. I got clear playing patterns.

Ready and excited to play against Roger!© FFT / Corinne Dubreuil

“I'm holding my serve comfortably. I'm in a good place mentally when I go into my service games. I think it showed this week thus far, you know. So I hope I can keep that up. Against Rafa you need it, obviously.

“At this stage of the tournament, anyway, you have to bring your best game. Personally, I'm very excited to be in the semis here. Not that I didn't expect it, but it definitely went better than I thought it would.”

So Roger is on the up – confident, fit and firing – and Rafa is just hoping against hope that his knee will have calmed down by Saturday morning. It is not the greatest build up to an all-time classic but with these two champions, you just never know.