The race to the Indian Wells semi-finals hots up
The easy progress of Djokovic and Federer may be tested by old adversaries, writes Marianne Bevis
There was not much to choose between the top three seeds as they strode from the third to the fourth rounds at the Indian Wells Masters.
In the race between Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for who could lose the fewest games, it was the Serb who won.
He dropped just one to a weak Ernests Gulbis. Federer conceded a miserly two to a Juan Ignacio Chela playing flat out for a set before losing all heart and concentration against a totally focused Swiss. Nadal lost four to qualifier Ryan Sweeting.
Nadal’s hour-and-eight-minute-win looked relatively tardy alongside Federer’s and Djokovic’s 50-something minutes apiece, but they weren’t the only men in a hurry for victory.
Richard Gasquet took only 61 minutes to beat Jurgen Melzer, Ivo Karlovic just 62 against Gilles Simon and Andy Roddick 67 to beat John Isner.
All this haste made it difficult to find one man who stood out from the pack, one to bet on for the title. It has made it necessary, in fact, to look at the draws and the form book for some help.
Nadal, for example, had a good draw from the word go, with no fewer than four qualifiers in his eighth. With two of those qualifiers already in his rear-view mirror, he faces his third in a row, Somdev Devvarman, in what should be straightforward progress to the quarter-finals.
Once there, Nadal’s worst prospect is the No23 seed, Albert Montanes, and his best prospect is the unseeded Ivo Karlovic.
The semi-finals therefore beckon Nadal with a gentle wave of the hand via one of two men already talking of tiredness even before they have played one another.
Robredo fills the quarter-final spot that Andy Murray was scheduled to take had the Scot not fallen at the first hurdle: Nadal has beaten Robredo in all six of their meetings.
The top seed’s other possible opponent is Juan Martin Del Potro, currently unseeded as he makes his way back from an injury-filled 2010.
The Argentine, enjoying his first run of wins since last year’s Australian Open, has reached the quarter-finals the hard way, taking three sets to beat Ivan Ljubicic, a tie-breaker opening set against Alexandr Dolgopolov and two tie-breakers against Philipp Kohlschreiber. No wonder he looks and sounds tired.
So it is to the bottom half of the draw that the eye drifts for some intrigue, and with all four of the best seeds still in contention, the semi-final is wide open.
Andy Roddick, last year’s finalist who went on to win the Miami Masters, has a great record at Indian Wells -he has reached the quarter-finals or better six times. He has also just won his 30th title in Memphis.
Roddick faces the charismatic tennis of Gasquet who is showing much of the former sparkle that took him to No7 in the world almost four years ago.
Which of them finds their groove, his reward will be the form player of the moment who has not suffered a single loss in 14 matches this year: Djokovic.
Things are panning out well for the hyper-confident Serb. Gulbis put up little resistance in their third round match, and then countryman, Troicki, on a seven match losing streak to his Davis Cup team-mate, won just a single game. So Djokovic has lost only six games in three matches, and is simply bursting at the seams with confidence.
Another match of intrigue, for very different reasons, is Federer against the huge talent, big game and surging self-belief of the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison.
The tussle for a quarter-final place might be seen as old against new, ambition against experience.
And while it may not be Harrison’s moment yet -he has a lot of tennis in his legs from this tournament -it won’t be long before the baton could well pass either to Harrison or to the man he took two-and-a-half hours to beat in the third round, Milos Raonic.
Which leaves one of the most intriguing players in this quarter. For if there was a prize for the worst sequence of draws in the last year, Stanislas Wawrinka may take it.
The trouble began on the clay early last summer where he picked up Djokovic in the last 16 in Monte Carlo, Nadal in the Rome quarter-finals -having already beaten Berdych, Soderling and Jurgen Melzer -and then Federer in the last 16 in Madrid.
As his ranking slid outside the top 20, things got worse though his play and commitment seemed to grow. At the US Open, he took out Andy Murray in the third round, and then Sam Querrey, before losing in five long sets to Mikhail Youzhny.
In both the Shanghai and Toronto Masters, he met Nadal in the second round. At Paris it was Soderling and at both Stockholm and the Australian Open it was Federer.
This week, too -though back inside the top 15 -he has had a rough draw, finding the unseeded Nikolay Davydenko in his first match and Marin Cilic in his second.
So his third round against Berdych was more of the same in the Swiss No2’s world of hard knocks.
It was also a great shot-making match as both men mounted a full-blooded attack in a two-hour 38 minute contest that could have gone either way.
Coming from behind, which is often when he finds his best tennis, Wawrinka took the bigger chances and showed the greater aggression -producing both more winners and more unforced errors -to win the quarter-final place.
Once again, though, Wawrinka finds himself holding the splintery end of the stick as he faces the prospect, for the fifth time in 10 months, of his doubles partner, Federer.
Wawrinka did not manage a win in any of those last four encounters, but if he finds the same aggression, belief and backhand that he did against Berdych, who knows? Maybe fortune will be ready to smile on the lesser-known Swiss at last.