We've come full circle. The last time they met this early in a draw was their very first encounter back in 2004, in the third round of the Miami Masters, when a then-17-year-old upstart Rafal Nadal — sleeveless and self-assured — introduced his matador's mentality to top-ranked Roger Federer in the form of a 6-3, 6-3 upset. Some 13 years and 34 head-to-heads later, they'll meet again, this time in the Round of 16 at the BNP Paribas Open, their storied rivalry as vibrant, as relevant, as ever.
With Federer sitting out the second half of 2016 to recuperate from knee surgery and major-less over the past four years, and Nadal struggling to regain his former formidable form amidst injury stoppages, many began to wonder if either thirty-something had another Slam run in them. They silenced those skeptics in January at the Australian Open, where Federer claimed his record 18th Grand Slam title via an epic five-set, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 triumph over Nadal.
As fate would have it, they'll meet again here at the BNP Paribas Open; just the kind of highly anticipated matchup tennis junkies began hoping for the very moment the tournament's Group of Death draw was revealed.
"I think he's made me a better player," the 10th-ranked Federer reflected in Melbourne. "Because the way his game stacks up with me. It's a tricky one. I've said that openly. It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him."
"It's exciting for both of us that we're still there and we're still fighting for important events," concurred Nadal, the world No. 7. "That's very special. It's the combination of two different styles that makes the matches really special."
Of their 35 previous encounters, an astonishing 31 have come in semis or finals. Perhaps that's why their early-round encounter here feels so odd. Nadal has dominated the overall rivalry, 23-12, his 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 win over the Swiss in the 2008 Wimbledon final often held up as the greatest match of all time. It marked the Spaniard's first breakthrough on the lawns of the All England Club, aka The House That Roger Built. "God, it's killing me," confided a teary Federer upon coming up short against Nadal 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2 in the 2009 Australian Open final.
Five Roger-Rafa Matches For The Ages
• 2008 Wimbledon Final: Nadal def. Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7
• 2017 Australian Open Final: Federer def. Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3
• 2009 Australian Open Final: Nadal def. Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2
• 2007 Wimbledon Final: Federer def. Nadal 7-6(7), 4-6, 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-2
• 2006 Rome Masters Final: Nadal def. Federer 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5)
But Federer has been on the winning end of things, too. Of his record seven Wimbledon titles, two have come at Rafa's expense (2006-'07).
This will be their third tussle at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Fededer claimed their 2012 semifinal 6-3, 6-4, while Nadal returned the favor the following year in the quarterfinals 6-4, 6-2. Between them, they have collectively accounted for seven of the past 13 Indian Wells titles.
"I think it's an unlucky part of the draw for everybody," said Nadal after his third-round 6-3, 7-5 win over countryman Fernando Verdasco. "It's not good, because good players are going to go out early. In this case, it doesn't matter if everybody is playing well, because from our part of the draw, only one of us is going to be in the semifinals. That's tough, but that's not happening every week. The only thing we can do to avoid that is to be in a higher position in the rankings."
Turning back the clock on Tuesday in Indian Wells, Nadal paused to reflect on that first encounter in Miami all those years ago.
"I went on court [with] nothing to lose," Nadal remembered. "A lot of motivation to play against the No. 1. In that moment, I was 17. And for me to play against Roger, it didn't matter that it was in that early round. I don't feel it was unlucky for me. It was a beautiful match, and I tried to go out on court and enjoy it and fight for it."
There's certainly more at stake these days when Federer and Nadal face off. But as they get closer to the back end of their careers, you get the feeling they're each relishing these moments as much as ever. And we are, too.