The hotly anticipated clash was on the cards when the draw was made last week, placing them both in the ‘group of death’ in the bottom half of the draw. It will take place not before 5pm on Wednesday on Stadium 1.
It will be the 36th installment of one of tennis’ most celebrated rivalries, just a few weeks on from their five-set battle in the Australian Open final, which saw Federer return from a five-month injury layoff to capture his 18th Grand Slam championship. Nadal leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry 23-12.
“He has the talent to do very difficult things that look easy. He's able to take the ball very early. Serve and first shot, he creates a lot of winners with that, the two first shots,” Nadal said of Federer.
“And then he's able to take the ball always from inside, and he's very quick going to the net. If you play a short ball, then you know that he’s going to go inside and going to hit a winner, going to play a shot [to your] forehand or backhand, goes to the net, and you are going to be in big trouble.”
Nadal was first to advance Tuesday, defeating Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 7-5. The 30-year-old claimed his 50th win at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden as he defeated Verdasco in one hour and 29 minutes. The Mallorcan has won three of his 28 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crowns in the desert, lifting the trophy in 2007 (d. Djokovic), 2009 (d. Murray) and 2013 (d. del Potro).
“I played a good match, no? Very aggressive with my serve, serving well, hitting good forehands, good backhands... Very happy. I think I played much better today than the first day,” Nadal said. “So very pleased with my performance.”
Under a hot sun in the Coachella Valley, Nadal improved to a 16-3 mark against Verdasco in their first meeting since he beat the Madrid native at the same stage of the BNP Paribas Open 12 months ago.
Nadal broke Verdasco to love in the eighth game of the opener and drew blood in the early stages of the second set with a break in the third game. Verdasco rallied to level in the fourth game, but Nadal broke through decisively in the 11th game, with the pressure telling on Verdasco. Nadal closed it out with a hold to 15.
Federer had a closer contest with Steve Johnson, edging the American 7-6(3), 7-6(4) in a match where neither man was able to break serve. Federer was denied four break point opportunities, but took his chance in both tie-breaks to claim victory in one hour and 34 minutes, only surrendering six points behind his first serve in the match.
The 35-year-old Federer is bidding to win the Indian Wells crown for the fifth time, following triumphs in 2004 (d. Henman), 2005 (d. Hewitt), 2006 (d. Blake) and 2012 (d. Isner). He also finished runner-up in 2014 and 2015 (l. to Djokovic both times).
He holds high hopes for his second showdown with Nadal of 2017. The last time they met was their five-set epic in the Australian Open final.
“That's why I came here, to play against guys like Rafa. Now we have it,” Federer said. “I'm going to be excited now, I’d better be excited now otherwise I came for the wrong reasons.”
Federer said he would draw some confidence from his run Down Under but was still treating this early part of the season as his comeback. “I try to see it really as another opportunity to build upon something for the rest of the season,” he said.
“So regardless of Australia, winning or losing, I'm going to try to go out there and try to play free again. I think it's really important.
“I'm really happy that I got my energy back, because in Dubai I was actually still quite tired. I feel like tomorrow if I move well I will definitely have a chance against Rafa.”