Indian Wells: No. 2 (Rafa) rolls; No. 1 (Djokovic) does not

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Rafael Nadal was sitting there after a win trying to explain a defeat. That’s the way it is in tennis. Maybe in all sports.

No one seems to care what is happening — just what once happened and what might gain happen.

Rafa easily beat Diego Schwartzman, 6-3, 6-1, in their third-round match of the BNP Paribas Open on Tuesday. Yet the obligatory interview seemed to focus less on Nadal and more on Novak Djokovic, who had whipped Rafa in the Australian Open final in February; who at this moment was playing maybe 50 yards away from where Nadal sat; and ostensibly who would face him again in the BNP final.

After all, Djokovic is No. 1 in the world rankings and Nadal is No. 2.

But hey, on Monday night they had rain in the desert. The place was Wimbledon with sand dunes. What next?

Djokovic getting upset, that’s what was next, losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber, 6-4, 6-4, when, with the sun shining and the temperature into the 70s, their match resumed.

Which means that Djokovic-Nadal rematch isn’t going to happen for a while.

“It's more about the moment,” said Nadal about competing against the other great ones, Djokovic, Roger Federer, “then the level in general. When (in the Australian) Novak was playing very well, he beat me.”

As when he wasn’t playing very well, in Djokovic’s first event since the Australian, he was beaten by Kohlschreiber, the German ranked No. 39.

A couple days ago, Djokovic was asked whether a month without tournament competition would have an effect on his game.

“Well, look, you know,” he said, “I also want to spend time with my family. You know, for me, at this stage of my career, you know, it's balancing between the two. You know, I can't prioritize only myself and my career. I've got to think about my children and my wife.

“And that's fine, you know, because I want to focus myself on the biggest events. I started off the season in the best possible way. So I really want to try to get the most out of Indian Wells and Miami. And after that, we'll see.”

He didn’t get much out of Indian Wells, except a rain delay and a straight-set defeat.

“Yeah,” said Kohlschreiber, “very special to beat the No. 1. Unfortunately, the tournament is not over.”

It is for Djokovic, of course. And for the No. 1 woman, Naomi Osaka, who on this day of upsets, also lost.

Indian Wells is up on the scale of tournaments around the world, a notch or two below the four Grand Slams. A competitor would rather win the Australian, as Djokovic did, or the French, the next major, which is owned by Nadal, unquestionably one of the finest clay court players ever.

Indian Wells is on hard courts, and Nadal, in his sleeveless, pink shirt — or is it a jersey or singlet? — was rolling against Schwartzman, the Argentine.

“I think I did a lot of things well,” said Rafa. “My serve worked very well, especially in the first set. I always liked to play here. I played a lot of positive events here.”

He’s won it three times. That’s very positive. But the questions about the Australian, where he did everything but take down Djokovic, focused on the negative.

“Of all the things I’ve been going through, the four or five months before the Australian start have been tough ones,” said Nadal, who was recovering from injuries.

“So arriving under those conditions and to be able to play the way I played has been great news.”

Nadal, a Spaniard who grew up on the island of Majorca, struggles more with English than he does with forehands and backhands. He gets tenses and words mixed up a bit, but the meaning comes through.

“I can be happy about the final,” said Nadal about a rather one-sided 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 loss in Australia. “And all the matches help to take an experience and to learn a little bit about it, no? I will try to do better next time.”

In this BNP, he’s doing well enough this time. Better then Djokovic, to be sure.