The Swiss trains ran ahead of schedule on Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open as Stan Wawrinka overwhelmed Pablo Carreño Busta, 6-3, 6-2, in the first men’s semifinal and Roger Federer defeated Jack Sock, 6-1, 7-6 (4), in the next.
But then the tennis balls were also flying faster than usual through the dry desert heat in Indian Wells. Even while camped well behind the baseline, Wawrinka was able to muscle huge groundstrokes past Carreño, his whippet of a Spanish opponent. And for all of Sock’s muscle, Federer often deprived him of the time to unleash it.
“He takes advantage so quick,” said Sock, an American. “Hopefully there is a next time we play and a few adjustments I’ll make, but just the room for error is so small.”
That may prove just as true in Sunday’s all-Swiss final between Federer and Wawrinka, with both players in fine form.
“I know the danger,” Federer said.
Federer was Wawrinka’s off-court mentor long before they became true on-court rivals, and he still holds an overwhelming 19-3 career edge in their meetings. He seems to hold a lingering psychological edge as well, even if Sunday’s final will match the winners of the two most recent Grand Slam events: Wawrinka, who won the United States Open in September, and Federer, who took the Australian Open in January.
“Roger is Roger, the greatest player of all time,” Wawrinka said. “I think we all know him. I do, too, and there’s not much more to say, unfortunately.”
Wawrinka said this wistfully, not testily. As for regrets, he must have a few from their most recent encounter, in an Australian Open semifinal, which Federer won in five sets after weathering Wawrinka’s comeback from two sets down.
Federer went on to win his 18th Grand Slam singles title, defeating Rafael Nadal in five more sets in the final. Federer took time off to celebrate and heal a sore leg; Wawrinka took time off to regroup and heal an ailing knee.
It remains a grueling sport: See Andy Murray’s surprise withdrawal from the Miami Open, which begins on Monday, because of an injured right elbow. Novak Djokovic, too, is questionable to play because of an injury.
And now, with Federer’s relish-the-moment mentality and newly aggressive approach to his one-handed backhand, he has, at the advanced tennis age of 35, perhaps never been more dangerous. After stumbling in the second round in the Dubai Tennis Championships this month against the qualifier Evgeny Donskoy, Federer has recovered his balance in Indian Wells and has not lost a set or his serve.
“It’s true; it’s incredible,” Wawrinka said. “He is playing perhaps better than ever. Me, too. I look forward to playing him in a big match. I never beat him on a hardcourt, so there has to be a first time at some stage.”
Wawrinka’s three victories over Federer came on red clay, the most recent in the quarterfinals of the 2015 French Open. But Wawrinka has more than proved himself on hardcourts, winning the 2014 Australian Open and last year’s United States Open.
Federer, who first hit with Wawrinka at the Swiss national tennis center when Wawrinka was a little-known teenager, said Wawrinka’s improvement was noteworthy.
“I’m mighty impressed how he made his game grow because I thought he will be forever a clay-court guy,” Federer said.
There has been very occasional friction, including a testy exchange between Wawrinka and Federer’s wife, Mirka, during the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals in London. But the players’ connection has been much more about friendship and mutual support; they won Olympic gold in men’s doubles in 2008 and captured Switzerland’s first Davis Cup title together just eight days after that contentious London match.
In the past four seasons, Wawrinka, who turns 32 on March 28, has won three Grand Slam singles titles to Federer’s one, earning himself membership in the exclusive club of great players in this top-heavy era in men’s tennis.
Yet there is still a gulf between Wawrinka and the other top players when it comes to week-to-week consistency. This will be Federer’s 43rd Masters 1000 final, tying him with Djokovic for the most in a career. Nadal has played in 42, Murray in 21. This will be only the fourth for Wawrinka, a big reason he continues to resist the idea of relabeling the Big Four as the Big Five.
“They have 10 years of victories, and I only have, let’s say, three and a half,” he said. “For 10 years they won everything, but I’m not looking to make comparisons. It serves no purpose. I am living the moment.”
The next life experience for the second-greatest Swiss men’s player in history: another shared moment with Federer.