Djokovic and Nadal dominate the quartet of champions
The Indian Wells semi-finals featured the four men who have dominated grand slam tennis for six years
The Indian Wells Masters may be set in the desert sunshine, bright beneath a cloudless sky. But in its semi-final line-up, it enjoyed a once-in-a-blue-moon moment: one of those rare alignments of the stars that will find a permanent place in the record books.
The first Masters of the year boasted from the outset a field worthy of a grand slam -every man in the top 10 and 45 of the top 50 -and the finest of them, a quartet of supreme quality and class, filtered their way to the final weekend.
Less than a year back, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro held the top four rankings until the Argentine took time out with a wrist injury.
Between them, the four had won the last 24 Majors: a run begun by Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 and kept alive at this year’s Australian Open by Djokovic. The top three -Nadal, Federer and Djokovic -had also won six of the last seven Indian Wells titles.
This year, the result of the semis would also settle the world No2 ranking.
It began with Nadal and Del Potro, a match in which their respective rankings of one and 90 could not have meant less. The Argentine started 2011 at 484 but consecutive weeks of success on North America’s hard courts, culminating in the Delray Beach title, proved he was on his way back to the top with impressive haste.
He also had a great record against the Spaniard. Nadal beat Del Potro when they last met at Indian Wells in 2009, but the Argentine took his revenge in three further meetings that year: at the Miami Masters, the Montreal Masters and, most memorable of all, the semi-finals of the US Open. They had not played one another since.
In the opening set, Del Potro looked able and willing to go toe-to-toe on the baseline and his reward was to break Nadal’s opening game. Nadal, on his side, looked tense and struggled to deal with the aggression of an opponent able to take the ball on the rise and power it deep to both wings. He went down 4-1 with a succession of overhit forehands.
But Nadal’s strength is as much between the ears as in the legs and the arms. Quite simply, he got his ‘look’ -when the eyes glare and the body twitches with eagerness.
His forehand started to loop at absurd trajectories, down the line and crosscourt, and Del Potro was unable to contain the bombardment. The Spaniard hit back with two consecutive breaks to serve out the set 6-4.
Del Potro renewed his attack at the start of the second set and in the fourth game, he won two break points.
But Nadal picked up the pace again, on serve and on forehand, to hold his serve. He forced a break point from his opponent and took the decisive lead. He lost barely another point on his serve -finishing with 11 service points in a row -to take the set 6-4.
Del Potro looked a weary man by the end. He is still working back to his former fitness and has played a lot of tennis in the past month.
He should be pleased with this result and will find himself back in the top 50 next week. Come the next North American swing, he will also be ready to reach even deeper in the draw and perhaps be a contender for one of the autumn hard-court Masters.
The first semi-final, however, was merely the appetiser to a mouth-watering main course spiced and seasoned by the rivalry of the moment: Federer and Djokovic.
This was to be the 22nd instalment of their compelling tug-of-war, and the immediate prize was tangible: the No2 ranking.
Their 2011 seasons encapsulated the nature of the contest. Djokovic’s record had been flawless -a 16-0 winning record, and for the loss of only three sets. The last man to open a season with 16 straight wins was his opponent, in 2006.
Federer, for his part, had also looked near-flawless, boasting an 18-2 winning record, but both those losses were to Djokovic, and both in finals. Factor into the mix that the last man to beat Djokovic was Federer, three consecutive times in three months, and the taste buds started to tingle.
The match opened with love games on both sides. In the second pair of games, though, both settled into their attack. Federer strung together some powerful rallies on the Djokovic serve and the Serb started to drive Federer wide to either sideline on his.
They read each other’s game very well, so aces were almost non-existent and tactics became the key to winning points.
It was Federer who cracked first. His crisp game failed to pick up many rewards and he started to hit a few shots long. Djokovic took ruthless advantage to break.
Federer attempted to hit back straight away, gaining two break points, but he was unable to hit through Djokovic’s extraordinary defence. The Swiss then came under pressure on his own serve again and, although he held, he was broken again in the next to concede the set 6-3.
The second set opened with the highest quality tennis thus far -though the first had already set a very high standard. Both men were hitting clean and varied shots as they tried to outmanoeuvre each other, but this time it was Federer who went on the offensive the more strongly and he forced an early break, 3-1.
He continued to mix up the speed, spin and length of his shots, which drew the same from Djokovic: it was a purple patch.
Eventually, though, Djokovic looked nonplussed by the unwavering quality of his opponent’s attack and made a handful of unforced errors -12 for the set -to concede a second break and the set 6-3.
Once again the momentum shifted. Federer missed every first serve in his opening game to get broken immediately. He then won two break points of his own but failed to convert.
On the next Djokovic serve, though, Federer made no mistake and, with a surge of 10 points of out 11, he levelled the match, 2-2. But with a 41-15 advantage on his own serve, he made a succession of forehand errors and a double fault to hand another break to Djokovic.
With the momentum back on the Serbian side, the match was won and lost. The Djokovic chest expanded, the angled forehands got wider and lower and Federer made more errors, particularly on his serve and off forehand -usually his trademark winners. Djokovic broke again and served out for the match -6-2 -and the No2 ranking.
This defeat will hurt the Federer game. He was fit, moving well, striking the ball deep and fast: indeed he played some great tennis until the match’s closing stages.
But Djokovic has his number, reads him like a book, counters with equally intelligent tactics and defends as well as Nadal.
It is proving a difficult mix for Federer, but is proving to be a confidence-boosting, tournament-winning formula for Djokovic.
The Serb now meets Nadal for 24th time but has never before beaten him in a final. With this kind of tennis, though, it could at last be Djokovic’s day in the sun.