INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The undercard became the main event at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Saturday.
The crowd arrived eager to watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal renew their rivalry, a few fans having paid dearly to secure a final-hour ticket to Stadium 1.
But Nadal, having tendinitis in his right knee, soon announced his withdrawal after testing the knee in a morning training session.
The only men’s semifinal to be played on Saturday at the BNP Paribas Open was between Dominic Thiem and Milos Raonic, and Thiem prevailed, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 6-4, in a match of contrasting styles in which there was only one break of serve.
That came at 2-2 in the third set when Thiem finally found a window of opportunity against Raonic’s huge serve (and improved volleying). Raonic struck a forehand into the net while facing break point, and Thiem took it from there despite playing a relatively shaky final game in which he had to save the only break point he faced all afternoon.
It will be Thiem versus Federer in Sunday’s final. It will be the ninth final here in the desert for the fourth-seeded Federer, who has won the title five times but lost last year’s final after squandering three match points against Juan Martín del Potro.
It will be the first final at Indian Wells for the seventh-seeded Thiem, and it could be quite an eye-catching duel given each man’s flashy style and their 2-2 head-to-head record.
But it will not generate the same sort of anticipation as a Federer-Nadal rematch. They have not faced each other in 17 months, and this would have been their 39th meeting in singles. But Nadal, who has had patellar tendinitis for years, felt fresh pain in the late stages of his quarterfinal victory over Karen Khachanov on Friday.
Late on Saturday morning, Nadal texted his friendly rival Federer to let him know that he would not be able to play.
“For me, it’s not about only today,” Nadal said. “It’s about what it means for me to have to pull out in a tournament that I love so much like this one, and in the semifinals after playing well during the whole tournament. You can imagine that I can’t be happy.”
Nadal also announced his withdrawal from the Miami Open, which begins next week and is one of the few significant events he has not won. His decision not to play on Saturday was also made with the goal of preserving his clay-court season. An 11-time French Open singles champion and the most successful clay-court player ever, Nadal said he fully expected to be ready to play on clay in Monte Carlo next month.
Federer, 37, appeared in the stadium after the Thiem-Raonic match to give an on-court interview for the fans. Nadal leads their rivalry, 23-15, but Federer has won five straight, most recently in the final of the Shanghai Masters in 2017.
“We’ve had so many epic battles, and yes, I know that everyone we have now could be our last,” Federer said. “So was this our chance for the last one? I really hope not, and I really believe at the level he’s playing and I’m still going, there are definitely going to be more.”