Rafael Nadal outlasts James Blake and Federer gets a free pass to the semifinals.

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James Blake came out firing in his quarterfinal match with Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells last night and the home crowd was delighted. Everyone screamed when he hit a rocket return in the second game that gave him three break points. Nadal followed that up with an error and Blake had his break to go up 2-0, but the rest of the set was very close: Blake hit the ball as hard as he could and Nadal returned it just as hard.

Until, that is, Blake made a mental mistake that cost him the set. He was serving at 5-5 when he stopped in mid-rally to challenge a call on break point. You can’t take a chance like that unless the ball looks like it’s taking off for the moon because you lose the game if you’re wrong. The ball hadn’t taken off anywhere, it had landed on the line and now Nadal served for the set. Blake got three break points in the next game but he hit five straight errors and Nadal was up, one set to none.

The obvious complement to Blake’s power baseline game is a strong net game, particularly because his speed gets him to the net so quickly. He’s not a great vollyer but it did get him through the second set. Blake came out firing again and hit a beautiful cut volley in the second game of the set to go up 2-0. Serving for the set at 5-3, Blake hit a lunging backhand volley off a searing Nadal passing shot for set point. On the next point, Nadal hit a drop shot that looked like it was miles away from Blake, but Blake covered the territory with room the spare and hit a winner down the line. See what I mean by quickness? The match was now even at one set each.

The third set was more of the same, but long about the middle of the set, Blake started missing and that’s one of the problems with his style of play. It’s very difficult to maintain over the course of an entire match because, sooner or later, if you aim for the lines, you start missing. It’s probably the main reason he has such an awful record in five set matches. I don’t think he should change his game, obviously it suits his personality and skills. He said as much after the match:

I’ve heard a million times so-called tennis insiders telling me to be more cautious. I’ve heard it on TV, I’ve heard it in papers, and it’s almost laughable to me, because they honestly would never be talking about me if I played that game, because I’d be retired by now.

This so-called tennis insider never told him to be more cautious, though I may have suggested developing a secondary strategy when his power game isn’t working – specifically, attacking the net. But what I want to know is this: when he started losing it in the third set, did he lose focus or was he getting tired?

I always assumed that Blake was in superb condition but last night, he looked like he tired out. Nadal broke him to go up 5-3 in the set and then the wheels came off. He had trouble keeping the ball in the court. Nadal was on his way to the semifinals with a 7-5, 3-5, 6-3 victory.

That has been the revelation of this tournament for me: Nadal’s deep reservoir of composure. He is the epitome of focus. He outlasted a barrage of shots, volleys, and on court celebrations from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, then won the last five games in the third set to win the match and he did it again today. Roger Federer is the other player who compares to Nadal in that regard but I don’t think his composure compares to Nadal’s when he’s behind in the score.

I hope Nadal’s injuries don’t shorten his career because I’m looking forward to watching him for many more years. As for Blake, clearly you lose focus when you get tired and his high power game would tire anyone out. A little more treadmill work should help but how do you improve focus? It helps to feel supremely confident but you can practice it. What do you think Nadal’s incessant ball-bouncing and butt-picking is about? It’s his way of focusing in and maintaining his rhythm regardless of what’s going on around him.

I don’t want Blake to slow down his game but he could learn something from Nadal by slowing down and gathering himself before each point. Besides, the rest would do him good.

Someone just announced in the Media Center that Tommy Haas has withdrawn from the tournament with a sinus infection. Big groan from everyone here. A sinus infection? Haas battles through three shoulder surgeries and he can’t play because he has a sinus infection? That means Federer gets a free pass to the semifinals and there he could face his latest nemesis, David Nalbandian. Nalbandian has beaten Federer in the last two Masters Series events. Will it be three in a row? Stay tuned.

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