In a few years they won't grace the courts at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden anymore and won't be vying for Grand Slam event championships. Roger Federer will be 38 years old in August and Rafael Nadal will be 33 in June, and age will overtake them in the not-so-distant future. No matter how great the athlete, no matter how cleverly they fight to stop the years from eroding their speed and strength and ability to recover after a tough match, time will win. It always does.
Which is why it was worth taking a few moments Sunday to savor Federer's 6-1, 7-5 victory over Peter Gojowczyk of Germany on a sunny afternoon in the desert, and to enjoy Rafael Nadal defying the evening chill in a sleeveless shirt while pulling off a 6-1, 6-1 rout of American wild-card Jared Donaldson in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open. They might not remain at this level much longer, so every chance to see them is worth treasuring.
Federer, the artist and 20-time Grand Slam tournament winner, had the luxury of experimenting with some drop shots and polishing his game in his first match of the tournament. Ranked No. 4 in the world and seeded fourth, Federer was untouchable in wrapping up the first set in a tidy 24 minutes. The second set was a marathon by comparison: It took 54 minutes and included a service break by Gojowczyk in the fourth game to take a 3-1 lead. Federer broke back in the fifth game and broke Gojowczyk's serve again for a 6-5 lead, then held serve for his 63rd match victory at Indian Wells.
"If I maybe would have served a little bit better, I think things would have gone faster," Federer said. "But at the end it was a tough second set, and it's maybe also exactly what I needed."
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Fans were thrilled his time at Stadium 1 lasted as long as it did. There's no telling how many more times Federer, a five-time champion at this tournament, will compete here again. He has avoided significant injuries besides knee surgery in 2016, but he might not always be so lucky. Andy Murray, nearly 32 and recovering from a second hip procedure, has said he plans to retire after Wimbledon this year. The "Big Four" of Federer, Nadal, Murray and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic became the Big Three as Murray faded. How much longer will the Big Three reign?
Federer was thoughtful when asked where he'll be five years from now – not in a broadcast booth or constantly on airplanes, he declared – and if he's concerned the sport will suffer when now-dominant players retire. Tennis will thrive, he said, because there are many ways for talent to emerge.
"There is so many cool events to attend that it always generates new superstars, either in the local market or internationally," he said. "I think a lot of guys have a very interesting story to tell, but right now (media) choose to focus on still our story, that Rafa is still going, I'm still going, Novak is dominating. All these things, it's very cool. That new wave is coming through. That new wave is inevitably going to win Slams and tournaments, and then we will hear more about them.
"So I think it will be fine, but I think it will be a transition, no doubt about it, like when Pete (Sampras) and Andre (Agassi) started to go away and we had a lot of different Grand Slam champions at that time, which I thought was quite exciting. But people said, 'Where is the guy that wins all the time?' And then when you have a guy winning all the time, then they say, 'Where are the guys winning separately?' It's never quite right, but I think we will be totally fine."
No. 2 seed Nadal has battled knee and ankle injuries in recent years and didn't play here in 2018 because of a hip problem. He withdrew from a tournament this year in Brisbane, Australia, because of a thigh strain and blamed a hand injury that limited his practice time for his second-round loss in his previous tournament, at Acapulco. But he was in command against Donaldson on Sunday and never faced a break point. His only complaint was feeling colder than he could ever remember here, but that didn't spoil the occasion.
"I always had good feelings on that court," said Nadal, a three-time Indian Wells champion. "I played a lot of good tournaments here. And I really enjoy playing here. It's an event that's a little bit different because normally, bit events are in big cities. Here, we have a little bit different feeling, being a little bit away from the world. ... The views are unbelievable. Normally, the weather is great. This year is a little bit worse."
Federer next will face Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka, who had two knee operations in 2017 and a back problem last year.
"If he's in no pain or injury-free, I think we will see a great Stan here, down the road, without a doubt," Federer said.
Nadal will oppose Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, also Tuesday.
"One of the best talents of the sport today," Nadal called him.
The best talents are still Djokovic, who will face Philipp Kohlschreiber in a second-round match Monday, and Federer and Nadal. Enjoy them while you can.