Two days ago, I wrote about Krystal Moore and Frankie Moulton, two friends from Wilmington, North Carolina who this past Sunday, flew west to the BNP Paribas Open to watch their respective favorites, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Monday morning, Moulton had been rewarded rapidly, within an hour of arrival witnessing a Nadal practice session. Moore, who’d never seen Federer in person, had waited five hours to see him practice. “It was worth it,” she’d said afterwards.
By Tuesday night, something had to give: Nadal. Moore and Moulton now found their friendship in a zero-sum stage. Delighted as these two were to hold a pair of seats in the 400 section of the stadium, they knew that by the end of Wednesday – their last day at Indian Wells -- one would experience the letdown of defeat.
By 10 a.m. Wednesday, the battle lines were clear. On the east side of Practice Court Two sat Moulton, awaiting Nadal, set to arrive for practice at 2:00 p.m.. “I love his passion, how he never gives up and that he’s so gracious and humble,” said Moulton. As for her own tennis, Moulton said, “I’m a fighter, but not graceful.”
Just to the west, Moore had stationed herself in the bleachers at the north end of Practice Court One, where Federer was also due in four hours. Pointing over to where Moulton was, Moore said, “It’s too painful to sit too far from Roger.” Moore also noted that while at home she exercised every day, she’d no time or energy for that at the tournament.
“These are my new friends,” Moulton said about her seatmates. By 1:30, every seat around the two practice courts was taken. Federer’s session began; per usual, brisk and compelling. “This is a dream come true,” said Moore. “There’s never been a better day.”
Moulton had noted that, “The Australian Open was so disappointing.” Of course, Moore had felt quite the opposite. Here at Indian Wells, my thinking was that the much slower court and thin desert air would favor Nadal. The Spaniard would be able to track down more of Federer’s shots and at the same time employ his familiar pattern of striking high crosscourt forehands to Federer’s backhand, a sustainable tactic that had helped Nadal win 23 of their previous 35 matches.
Federer concurred. “I thought it was going to be even more crazy against Rafa with his spin and his lefty hook and everything. It was going to be much tougher. . . But then I came into the match and I warmed up with Rafa. In those five minutes, I was like, whew, I'm feeling pretty good and the spin is not bothering me so much.
So as in Australian, Federer’s backhand clicked – committed, sharp, a new toy that has blossomed into yet another weapon for the man who for so long appeared to have everything. “Uhoh!” came the text message from Moulton. “Vamos Rafa.” Moore was jubilant. “Fed is on fire.” In 34 minutes, Federer took the first set, 6-2.
Naturally, all – including a packed house that included tournament owner Larry Ellison, tournament director Tommy Haas, founder Charlie Pasarell and legend Rod Laver – braced for the Nadal counter-offensive. It didn’t happen. Rarely was Nadal able to press Federer’s backhand. With the symmetry that probably marks the way Federer brushes his teeth, the second set also took 34 minutes, this one ending 6-3 in his favor.
“Fed deserved the win today!” wrote Moulton. “Rafa will get him next time!”
But these days, to the delight of Moore and millions more Federer fans, when it comes to this resurgent rivalry, the man from Switzerland is the one defying time and commanding space.