- Matt Wilansky, Tennis editor
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The maelstrom the world's top player, Roger Federer, caused with his early dismissal at the Pacific Life Open was a stunning turn of events. But for Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick -- who have been chasing his tail for over three years -- this tournament has taken on a very different dynamic.
While their ostensible reaction to Federer's dismissal was downplayed to an extent, it was quite transparent that the wide-open draw has given both players inner hope. Nadal and Roddick have each won their first four matches without dropping a set, and now the two meet in an enticing semifinal showdown, a match both players need to walk out of victorious.
"Sometimes it's just the way it works out," said ESPN tennis analyst Patrick McEnroe. "We were all shocked to see Federer eliminated so early, but it's bound to happen. This is what Roddick and Nadal needed. If nothing else, a little peace of mind."
It might seem counterintuitive, but it's not always necessary to face the best in order to reach maximum output. The usual foreboding notion with Federer looming in the way is typically a mental setback. But that isn't the case right now.
Mired in an eight-month slump since winning his second consecutive French Open crown, Nadal has left pundits wondering if he is solely a clay-court specialist. However, the world No. 2 showed grit and determination versus Juan Ignacio Chela in his last match, rallying from a 1-4 second-set deficit to win.
McEnroe has watched Nadal closely this week. "He seems to be finding his form again. His difficulties since the French are well documented, and aside from a few patches where his serve looked vulnerable, Nadal is hitting very well. His forehand has kept his opponents on their heals, and all around he is showcasing a renewed confidence," McEnroe said.
Similarly, Roddick has played with mirth and grit thus far. He narrowly escaped a vigorous attack from eighth-seeded and heavy-hitting Ivan Ljubicic in the quarterfinals, needing two tiebreakers to finish him off. Though the American's stat sheet showed only eight aces, he failed to face a break point. Impressively, Roddick -- who has been crucified as a one-dimensional, go-for-broke player -- has not had to fend off a single break point the entire tournament.
Said McEnroe, "He has served very well; this has always been his strong point, but he's backing it up now. What we are seeing now is a much more complete player, someone who relies on more than just his cannon serve. Andy's motivated -- he knows and understands the ramifications of this match. He looks like someone who wants desperately to win this tournament."
Roddick, though showing signs of a re-emergence, has not done much to add to his résumé since the beginning of 2006. His ranking has crawled back to No. 3 in the world, but he has only a single title to show for it.
"It's certainly been and up-and-down road for Roddick," McEnroe explained. "He fell in the rankings, and with Federer and Nadal having such a large lead, it was tough to make that up. But if he is able to get by Nadal, he will take an important step getting back to where he wants to be."
Roddick and Nadal both have a viable opportunity to put behind what has been a less-than-stellar few months. And if their play up to this point in the tournament is any barometer, both are going to have to reach deep in their bag of tricks to pull this match off.
As McEnroe explained, "The key for Roddick is to take advantage of the thin desert air; this has really helped out his serve. But, he also needs to be aggressive as well, and take advantage of short balls. He has done a great job this week of stepping into his forehand and then getting to the net.
"As for Nadal, he needs to make sure he can weather Roddick's first serve and take advantage of his second. That will be a key component to his success considering he is not one of the better returners in the game. Nadal needs to keep Andy moving. He needs to find a way to take Roddick's legs out and eventually wear him down," said McEnroe. "We all know Roddick will hit aces, but the longer Nadal can keep him on the court, the better off he is."
Roddick and Nadal have played twice, but not since 2004, the year before the Spaniard became a legitimate force. Roddick won their first encounter, a convincing straight-set win at the U.S. Open. Soon after that, though, Nadal took advantage of the red clay in Seville, Spain, and defeated the American in the Davis Cup final.
Now they meet again, in what has become a Federer-less draw. Roddick and Nadal have done what has been expected. And while neither could have met the three-time Indian Wells champion until the final, it's safe to assume that neither are lamenting his absence.
At end of day Roger Federer is going to be the No. 1 player in the world, but when Roddick and Nadal take to the court, it will be anything but a mundane tennis match.
"I'm excited," said McEnroe. "I only wish that this was the championship match. Yes, Roger is the best in the world, but at least the gap just got a little tighter."
Matt Wilansky, a general editor at ESPN.com, contributes frequently to the tennis page.
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