Why a Fed-Rafa Indian Wells showdown might not happen

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Or do they?

Novak Djokovic may be on the verge of passing Rafael Nadal in the prestigious “weeks at No. 1” category, and Andy Murray is on the cusp of becoming the 10th active player with at least 500 wins. The quartet that has dominated the ATP in recent years is still the Big Four, but it’s still a relative rarity for all four members (now ranked Nos. 1 through 4) to gather in the semifinals of a tournament.

One or the other of these men has won Indian Wells 10 of the past 11 years. But they’ve all made the quarterfinals on just two previous occasions, 2013 and 2009. And they’ve never done their barbershop quartet thing at Indian Wells in the semifinal stage. That could change Friday.

No. 4 Murray and No. 1 Djokovic have fulfilled their end of the bargain. Murray advanced to the semis with his 10th consecutive win over Feliciano Lopez, and Djokovic got a free pass when resurgent Aussie Bernard Tomic withdrew from the tournament Thursday with a sore back. Given that Tomic was the lowest seed (No. 32) and Lopez a manageable No. 12, you can’t blame No. 2 Federer or No. 3 Nadal for feeling that he drew the short straw.

Nadal will have to plow through No. 6 Milos Raonic and that gargantuan serve, while Federer meets as tough a No. 9 seed as you can conjure up in Tomas Berdych.

The way the two major stars tell it, the decisive factor in their matches may be the suddenly controversial Penn balls used at this event -- or more accurately, how well the players adapt to using the changeable balls. According to Nadal, the properties of the ball change radically with the time of day.

“Yeah, the conditions were much slower today,” Nadal declared after his fourth-round win over No. 13 seed Gilles Simon on Wednesday. “The other day the ball make big change with the weather conditions. Ball today was softer, bigger. The whole day yesterday, [the ball] was very small and very hard. No control.”

You could dismiss this as Nadal at his obsessive best but for the fact that Federer, and the player he eliminated in the third round, Andreas Seppi, backed up the complaint. As Federer said: “I just felt like it was tough for me to control the ball. Seppi said the same thing at the net, just like not really feeling the balls.”

On Friday, after Federer kicks things off at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN, Nadal will take his turn in Stadium 1, and he’ll know anxious moments if the ball again feels “like a stone.” Never mind fretting about a place in the semis. With Raonic sending rocks his way at 150 mph, Nadal would be justified in fearing for his safety.

Nadal lost a service game in his match with Simon but still won the first set. Nadal was broken again in the second game of the second set at down 2-0. He was able to break right back, but he knows that is unlikely to happen if the scenario repeats with Raonic. Contemplating Raonic’s ability to hold serve, Nadal said: “Every point has a lot of value. You cannot lose your concentration in no one moment with your serve. You know, what happened today with my serve twice cannot happen next day if I want to have any chance.”

But while Raonic has been playing well this year (he’s been in a semi, a final and the Australian Open quarterfinals), Nadal’s game has been Raonic's personal Rubik’s cube. The 24-year-old Canadian has won just one set from Nadal in five previous matches. The conditions at Indian Wells, which Raonic described as “a clay court that’s a little easier to move around on,” will favor the three-time champion, even though the relatively high bounce of the gritty hard court will make Raonic’s kick serve extra deadly.

Nadal’s confidence deficit all year has been striking. He presents a great contrast with Federer, to whom everything seems just hunky-dory. True, Federer has two titles to Nadal’s one, but the men have won the same number of matches (14). Nadal has lost three to Federer’s one, but the Swiss champ’s attitude is something other than confident. He’s also relaxed and seemingly free of stress. That will certainly help him when he squares off with Berdych.

Contemplating his opponent, Federer suggested: “[Berdych] has been around for so long, he knows his potential. He knows his limitations. … I think he does very well, and probably also with a new team now he feels eager to try out new things that maybe give him extra energy.”

That new team is led by Murray’s former coach, Dani Vallverdu. While the change of climate must be refreshing, Berdych is rapidly approaching 30 years of age and it’s difficult to imagine his game changing much. Federer has generally been able to exploit Berdych’s meat-and-potatoes game (big serve, hard but relatively flat shots that penetrate yet rarely stretch the width of the court).

Federer leads the head-to-head 12-6, but the 6-foot-5 Czech tagged Federer in two of their past three, and Berdych has pushed three consecutive matches to their three-set limit.

History suggests that the entire membership of the Big Four cannot make the semifinals. Djokovic and Murray are already in. That could be bad news for either Federer or Nadal -- or both.