History will be made one way or the other as defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia takes on Milos Raonic of Canada in the final of the first of the Nine Masters Series 1000 event of the year on Sunday in Indian Wells, California. The world number 1 will be attempting to win an unprecedented fifth title in the desert and a win will put him level at 27 ATP 1000 titles with the Spaniard Rafael Nadal. Raonic playing in his third Masters 1000 event will be looking for his maiden title.
In Saturday’s first semi final, the 12th seeded Raonic dropped his first set in five matches so far but dropped serve only twice in the 2 hour long encounter against the 15th seeded Belgian David Goffin. Only one break of serve in the first set helped Raonic clinch it 6-3. Goffin who had beaten him in their only career meeting so far at Basel, Switzerland in 2014, leveled the match taking the second set 6-3.
Raonic was broken twice while Goffin lost his serve only once. Raonic got an early break in the decider and that was all he needed as he won it 6-3. In his two previous Masters 1000 finals, Raonic lost to Nadal in his home country event in Montreal 2013 and in 2014 he lost the to Djokovic at Bercy, Paris. He improves to 14-1 for the year which includes winning the Brisbane ATP 250 event (beat Federer) and a five set heart breaking loss to Andy Murray in the semi final of the Australian Open in Melbourne. He missed the whole of February due to an adductor tear.
In the 48th career meeting, in what is the longest rivalry in men’s tennis in the Open Era, Nadal was off to a great start as he broke serve to go up 2-0 in the opening set. Djokovic broke right back and also saved a set point in the tenth game on his own serve. After taking a 5-2 lead in the tie-break, he lost the three points in a row but won the set with the help of a service winner which Nadal hit long and then Nadal netted a routine backhand.
Despite 46 unforced errors Djokovic never looked like loosing the match and made the decisive break in the sixth game to go up 4-2 and then broke again in the eighth game but not before Nadal had saved five match points. Djokovic has won this event in 2008 and then in 2011,2014 and 2015 when he also followed it up with a win in Miami to become the only player in the history of the game to win the Indian Wells and Miami double, three times.
For the loosing semi finalists both will pocket 360 points for their efforts. Goffin became the first Belgian to reach a Masters semi final in a highly successful tournament where he had to save two match points against the American Frances Tiafoe and then beat the reigning French Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland and the 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. Nadal too had to save a match point against the German teenager Alexander Zverev and then registered his first top ten victory of 2016 as he beat Japan’s Kei Nishikori.
Djokovic is now 21-1 in 2016 which includes wins in Doha and a Sixth Australian Open title in Melbourne. He has won all five matches against the Canadian who has only taken one set off the Serb in the semi final of the 2014 Rome Masters. Djokovic will also tie Dominic Thiem of Austria who leads the tour with 22 match wins in 2016 if he wins on Sunday.
Raonic is 14-1 for the year and should be better prepared against Djokovic who has shown patchy form this year. Raonic will look to join Ivan Ljubicic as the only player apart from the Big Four to win the title starting from 2013. The former coach of Raonic won the title in 2010 (d. Roddick). Roddick would then go on to win the Miami title, that year.
Since then only Robin Soderling (Paris Indoor 2010), David Ferrer (Paris Indoor 2013) and Jo Wilfred Tsonga (Toronto 2014) have gone on to win a Masters title apart from Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray. Raonic will be hoping he is third time lucky and should he get a high percentage first serves in he can claim his maiden title at this level.
Prediction : Djokovic has looked vulnerable this week and though he has still made it to the final, his form resembles the one he displayed between 2012 and 2014. Raonic will have his opportunities and unlike Nadal and Tsonga, one expects Raonic to make more of a dent. Raonic in three tight sets.
– Rasesh Mehta [Rasesh Mehta is an analyst with the Tennis Galaxy. You can reach him at the email: email@example.com]