INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Instead of going into a funk after failing to defend his title at the Australian Open, Roger Federer has responded by going on a roll.
At tournaments in Dubai and Indian Wells, Calif., he has won nine straight matches and 15 straight sets, and he looked thoroughly in his element again in the sunshine on Friday afternoon, defeating the unseeded and little known Hubert Hurkacz, 6-4, 6-4, in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open.
Federer’s next opponent will be quite a bit more familiar: Rafael Nadal, who defeated Karen Khachanov, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), in the day’s second quarterfinal despite pain in his right knee.
“That’s part of my career too,” said Nadal, the No. 2 seed. “I’m used sometimes to play with some problems.”
If Nadal is healthy enough to take the court, it will be his 39th match against Federer. But it will be their first meeting since 2017, when Federer upgraded his ability to attack with his single-handed backhand and won all five of their matches and narrowed the big edge that Nadal held in their head-to-head record.
Nadal still leads, 23-15.
“I don’t think those five matches matter that much, to be honest,” Federer said. “A lot of time has gone by, unfortunately maybe for the rivalry, for us, or for me. It’s always better to keep on maybe playing against him.”
Facing Hurkacz for the first time, the fourth-seeded Federer looked loose from the start as he tested the full range of his skill set.
There was the usual: wickedly sliced backhands, blocked returns and first serve-forehand combination punches. There was also the unusual: chip-and-charge tactics, serve-and-volley on second serve and no-look flicked backhand overheads.
“With the age, it’s about passion,” Federer, 37, said after the victory.
He is still feeling it and already making plans to play in 2020. He has a fuller schedule in mind for the first half of 2019 with the decision to resume playing clay-court events, most likely the Madrid Open and the French Open.
“It reminds me of my childhood,” he said. “I grew up on the clay. Every day in the summer and the winter, I was always on the clay.”
But for now, he is still on the hardcourts at Indian Wells, which are slower and grittier than most to compensate for the way the ball flies in the low-humidity, high-desert air. Second serves and topspin forehands can kick up here, and Federer now has a 66-12 record at this tournament. Those 66 victories are by far his highest total at any Masters 1000 event, and one more than his 65-victory total at the French Open.
He likes the calm here, likes the open space, likes the look of the snow-capped peaks in the distance that remind him a bit of the Alps in his native Switzerland. The BNP Paribas Open tournament director, Tommy Haas, who formally retired as a player only last year, is one of Federer’s closest friends.
Comfort zones like this are one explanation for why Federer continues to play, even while juggling family life, as the father of four children, with the logistical and psychological demands of elite tennis.
“If I’d be on the road by myself all the time, that means probably missing six months of the year,” he said of his family. “That’s not why I have kids. I had kids to see them and spend time with my wife. Somehow we make it work on the road. It’s a lot of work, a lot of organization and anticipation, and we have a wonderful team around us that makes it possible for us to do it.”
After winning his 100th career title in Dubai, he is now two victories from his 101st with a semifinal to come against the man who has been his friendly rival since 2004 and remains a friend. The two had coffee at Federer’s rented home last week to discuss the state of the tennis world.
Federer was asked if a matchup with Nadal still gave him more of a thrill than facing an unknown rising player.
“I think a combination,” he said. “If it was only Rafa, I wouldn’t enjoy that as well. I think having the mix is the magic really for me. Playing against young guys to eventually get to Rafa, that’s exciting.”
Federer added: “I’ve played a lot this year, and I’ve played well. I can go into this semifinal with confidence and a good feeling, so it’s really exciting to feel that before a big match.”
Hurkacz’s only previous chance to play with Federer was as a practice partner during a tournament in Shanghai, where he apologized for his errors.
But Hurkacz got the full experience on Friday in one of the game’s biggest stadiums.
“Today was a great lesson for me,” he said.