Djokovic targets title and No2 ranking at Indian Wells
Serb continues his serene progress towards a semi-final showdown with Roger Federer for the No2 ranking
The final stages of the Indian Wells Masters have an all-too-familiar look.
Though the qualifiers and the wild cards made their mark -two of them all the way to the fourth round -the cream has risen to the top and the quarter-finals were jam-packed with star-quality.
Three of the eight were former champions: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Four more were former top 10 players: Tommy Robredo (No5 in 2006), Juan Martin Del Potro (No4 less than a year ago), Richard Gasquet (No7 in 2007), and Stanislas Wawrinka (No9 in 2008).
And the eighth man? Ivo Karlovic -a former No14 -may have slumped to 239 after missing much of last year with an Achilles tendon injury, but the giant Croat had rediscovered the skills that make him such a formidable opponent in the right conditions: and Indians Wells has the right conditions.
He led the tournament with aces -53; with first serve points won -87 percent; and with service games won -98 percent. Karlovic also happened, just a fortnight ago, to produce the fastest ever serve: 156mph.
So while Nadal was favourite to beat him, a quick look at their head-to-head foretold how close it would be. Indeed on the grass of Queens, it took three tie-breakers to decide in Nadal’s favour.
It proved to be a mighty close affair again, with Karlovic taking first blood 7-5. Nadal stormed the second set 6-1 but there was nothing between the men in the final set which went, with a certain inevitability, to a tie-break. It took the world No1 three match points, but he did eventually seal his semi-final place, nine points to seven.
His opponent there had a considerably easier ride. Del Potro -very tired after his tight fourth-round battle -must have been grateful that his scheduled opponent, Robredo, pulled out at the 11th hour when an MRI scan confirmed a muscle injury that will also sideline him from the Miami Masters.
It was a bitter blow for the Spaniard, who has found a fine stretch of form in 2011. He won his 10th ATP title in Santiago last month, reached the semis of Buenos Aires, and got the better of Sam Querrey in this Masters’ fourth round for the loss of just four games.
Importantly for Del Potro, though, it has given him some precious rest before taking on Nadal and, if the Argentine’s form of the last week or two holds up, it could be a hotly contested semi-final.
There was much to relish in the bottom half of the draw, where no fewer than three of the four men wielded that most wonderful of tennis shots, the single-handed backhand. The most artistic of them -waving his racket like a magic wand -was Gasquet, and he would need every magic spell in the book against Djokovic.
The Serb came into this quarter-final with breathtaking stats: unbeaten in all 15 matches this year, dropping only three sets along the way, and losing just six games so far at Indian Wells.
The Frenchman, though, with a new coaching team in his corner, had been reminding those with a long memory of just why, when he soared inside the top 10 as a teenager, he was heralded as the next Federer. This week, he had already beaten two top-10 players back-to-back for the first time, and he will return to the top 20 next week after drifting to 86 a year ago.
So it was with some relief -and pleasure -that Gasquet stepped into this match with some superb Gallic shot-making to win a quick break and a 2-0 lead. His fire, though, was soon dampened. The third game -all 13 minutes and seven deuces of it -felt pivotal, and it was. Djokovic got the break back and stormed through six straight games for the set.
Gasquet had, despite the knock-back, thrown some great tennis at the Serb. One of the best single-handed backhands fired off against possibly the best double-handed backhand in long and complex rallies of real quality.
And the Gasquet backhand, with some all-too-infrequent bursts to the net, gave the Frenchman the advantage, and a 3-0 lead, in the second set, too.
The superior fitness and movement of the Serb quickly fuelled a retort and -one smashed racket aside -he confidently stormed the second set with five straight games, closing it out at 6-3.
Gasquet may take some confidence from winning as many games from the player of the moment as the last three men put together. He may also take away a hard-earned lesson that his attacking, aggressive game will win him more big matches than a long-drawn-out baseline game.
What the result offered up, though, was the tantalising prospect of the third showdown of the season between Djokovic and Federer. The Serb has won the last two, in Melbourne and Dubai. If he does so again, he will also take the Swiss’s No2 ranking with it.
The most-anticipated match of the tournament was confirmed even faster than Djokovic’s victory over Gasquet. It took the superior Swiss around an hour to dispose of his hapless compatriot, Stan Wawrinka, just as he had done in all their four meetings of the last 10 months.
No matter how much Wawrinka improves -and he has certainly improved since last summer under the tutelage of Peter Lundgren -he cannot make ground over the greater variety, imagination and movement of his friend-foe.
His game plan, to take the attack to Federer, yielded some great points but also many errors, and Federer fed off his pace and depth with enthusiasm.
It was, then, a straightforward win for world No2. For the 22nd instalment of his compelling rivalry against Djokovic, it will be anything but straightforward. But it could -in terms of ranking -be one of the most significant matches of the season.