The main stadium at the BNP Paribas Open was packed Thursday night for what was billed as a match between two of tennis' biggest stars and the first time in ATP Tour history that two players with 28 Grand Slam titles between them were meeting up.
What resulted, however, wasn't vintage Nadal vs. Federer.
With Nadal recovering from a left knee injury that knocked him out for seven months and Federer nursing a delicate back, they produced something less than classic.
Capitalizing on Federer's errors, Nadal won their quarterfinal 6-4, 6-2 in the earliest meeting between the rivals since they first played each other in 2004.
"I played a fantastic first set," Nadal said. "The second set was strange. Roger didn't fight as usual. Probably he had some problems and he didn't feel enough comfortable to keep fighting."
Nadal needed barely 1½ hours to close out the defending champion in their 29th career meeting and the first in a quarterfinal. Nadal faced just two break points on his serve in the match.
"Two weeks ago I didn't know if I can be here, and tomorrow I will be in semifinals here," Nadal said. "But is a big surprise for me to have these results. I was able to practice just a little before the comeback. Important thing is be healthy. And if that happens and I'm able to practice as much as I can, as much as I want, probably that the comeback will be a little bit less difficult, no?"
Nadal and Federer usually don't play each other until the semifinals and finals of tournaments, but the Indian Wells draw pitted them against each other in their earliest meeting since a third-round match at Miami nine years ago.
"You miss these moments this whole time, but play against Roger in any moment in any situation is special," Nadal said.
Nadal returned to the tour a month ago, winning two of three tournaments on clay after missing seven months because of a left knee injury. He had his knee wrapped and at times appeared to have a slight limp.
"No question, he's a bit careful at times, his movement. That's totally normal," Federer said. "Hasn't played for some time on hard court. I don't know if it's careful or if it's just getting used to it again."
Federer, at 31 the oldest player left in the draw, tweaked his back earlier in the tournament.
"I'm happy to be out there and able to compete, but it's obviously a small issue," he said. "That doesn't work against guys like Rafa, obviously."
Nadal served a love game to even the first set 3-all, then earned the only break in the next game, taking a 4-3 lead on a backhand passing shot. He went on to win two of the final three games as Federer pulled shots wide or dumped them into the net.
"The longer the match went on, I realized I had to change up my game. I played differently than I was hoping to be able to," said Federer, who started attacking more with mixed results in the second set. "He got more comfortable as the match went on. Obviously, once I was down a set I knew it was going to be difficult."
Federer faced a slew of break points in the second set, with Nadal converting in two of the first three games to take a 3-0 lead.
Federer briefly rallied, gaining one break back at 3-1, then losing just one point on his serve in the next game to get to 3-2. But Nadal won the final three games to claim the match in front of Andre Agassi.
"You could see at least I could serve full basically, and that always gives you a direction," said Federer, adding that he didn't want to talk about his back too much "because I don't like to undermine his performance, either."
A year ago, Federer beat Nadal in the semifinals on his way to a fourth Indian Wells title. Nadal leads their career series 19-10, and evened their head-to-head mark on hard courts at 6-6.
Still, Nadal wasn't feeling boastful.
"If I think that I am better than him because I beat him 19 against 10, I will be very stupid and very arrogant," he said. "This is not the case."
Nadal improved to 11-0 against top-10 opponents, with his last such loss coming here a year ago against Federer.
Nadal advanced to a semifinal against No. 6 Tomas Berdych, who beat Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-4.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.