Tennis·ROUNDUP

Nadal extends career-best season start to 18-0 with win over Opelka at Indian Wells

Nursing a nagging foot injury, Rafael Nadal became the second player in ATP Tour history to start a season 18-0, edging Reilly Opelka 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) on Wednesday in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open.

Canada's Fernandez, Dabrowski advance to doubles semifinals with their respective partners

Rafael Nadal plays a forehand during a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) win over Reilly Opelka in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Wednesday in Indian Wells, Calif. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Nursing a nagging foot injury, Rafael Nadal became the second player in ATP Tour history to start a season 18-0, edging Reilly Opelka 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5) on Wednesday in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open.

Only Novak Djokovic has gotten off to better starts since 1990. The Serb went 26-0 to begin 2020 and 41-0 to open 2011.

"I can't say it's a dream because I even couldn't dream about that three months ago, two months ago," Nadal said. "I am just enjoying every single moment."

In doubles action, Canada's Leylah Fernandez and French partner Alize Cornet advanced to the semifinals thanks to a walkover. They had been slated to play Czech duo Lucie Hradecka and Marie Bouzkova. Fernandez and Cornet will next face China's Yang Zhaoxuan and Xu Yifan on Thursday.

Fellow Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski also booked a spot in the semis with her doubles partner Giuliana Olmos of Mexico — setting up the possibility of an all-Canadian final. 

The fifth-seeded duo defeated Romania's Monica Niculescu and Irina-Camelia Begu in their quarter-final match. They will take on Japan's Ena Shibahara and American Asia Muhammad on Thursday.

Fernandez was eliminated from singles competition by defending champion Paula Badosa 6-4, 6-4 in the fourth round on Tuesday.

Nadal's playing time last year was interrupted by COVID-19 and injuries, creating doubt about the Spanish star's ability to recover well enough to maintain his exacting standards. But he won his record 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January and has continued on a tear.

"I am just very happy to be playing tennis," said Nadal, who turns 36 in June. "Today was a little bit worse than other days. It's true that the last couple of days the foot has been bothering me a little bit more.

Nadal has already withdrawn from the Miami Open that follows Indian Wells. He wants extra time to prepare for the clay court season that isn't as punishing as hard courts.

Nadal rallied from a 2-4 deficit in the second set to lead 6-5. Opelka held after three deuces when Nadal netted a forehand chasing the American's drop shot to force the second tiebreaker.

Nadal led 4-1 in the tiebreaker when Opelka struggled on his service returns. On his serve, though, the 6-foot-11 American closed to 4-3, hitting winners on a drop shot and a forehand.

Again on his serve, Opelka closed to 6-5.

But Nadal closed it out by pulling Opelka out of the court and the American's backhand landed wide.

"It's about trying to hit balls that you don't take a lot of risks, but at the same time don't allow him to go in and go for the shot," Nadal said. "Is trying to find the right balance between these two things."

There were no service breaks in the first set. Opelka fought off the only break point in the seventh game with a smash and forehand winner. Nadal held at love for 6-all, forcing the tiebreaker. Opelka led 3-2 with a forehand winner down the line. Nadal won the next five points, all on errors by Opelka, to take the set.

Nadal, a three-time champion in the desert, advanced to the quarter-finals against wild-card Nick Kyrgios. The Australian advanced to his first ATP Tour quarter-final since winning Washington in 2019 after 10th-seeded Jannik Sinner withdrew because of illness.

Taylor Fritz fired 14 aces in outlasting Alex de Minaur, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5).

"I have more confidence in my shot, so when it comes crunch time, I feel like I can kind of trust what I want to do, trust my game," said Fritz, who reached the semifinals at Indian Wells last year.

Fritz next plays Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia in the quarter-finals. Kecmanovic overcame 14 aces by No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini in a 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4 victory.

Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria beat John Isner, 6-3, 7-6 (6).

Halep, Swiatek also advance

Simona Halep took less than an hour to breeze past Petra Martic 6-1 6-1 on Wednesday and reach the semi-finals of the WTA Indian Wells tournament for the fourth time, while Iga Swiatek also advanced in style dismantling Madison Keys.

Halep went up a break at 2-1 in the opening set after her opponent double-faulted, and the Romanian reeled off the next six games behind confident groundstrokes and precise serving.

The tournament's 2015 champion was never really pushed, winning 55 points to Martic's 21.

The unseeded Martic had notched impressive wins over 28th-seeded Ludmilla Samsonova and U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu en route to the quarter-final, but appeared to run out of gas under sunny skies in the California desert.

Next up for Halep is Swiatek, who got past big-serving American Keys 6-1 6-0 in 56 minutes. The pair have met three times previously with Halep winning twice.

Swiatek, the 2020 French Open champion, had been pushed to three sets in her last three matches but looked in a hurry to secure a WTA Tour-leading 18th victory of the season.

With files from Reuters, CBC Sports

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