Indian Wells 2014: The Dog has his day—Dolgopolov into 1st Masters SF
Indian Wells 2014: Alexandr Dolgopolov beats Milos Raonic 6-3 6-4 to set up semi-final against Roger Federer
The sharp end of the Indian Wells draw may be missing five of the top six seeds, including the No1 and defending champion Rafael Nadal, but there was no denying that some of the cream of the 2014 crop had risen to the surface as the last eight competed for the semi-finals of this prestigious tournament.
The No2 seed and two-time former champion Novak Djokovic, the only top-10 player in the bottom half of the draw, may be without a title this year, and may have conceded a couple of sets at Indian Wells, but he had shown a champion’s mentality in winning through.
As he said after his three-setter against the dangerous Marin Cilic: “I was composed and mentally calm, regardless of the score line…I believed that I could come back.”
The highest remaining seed in the top half, four-time former champion and No7 seed Roger Federer, has been carrying the same kind of aura, especially given his return to top form after an injury-blighted season that began here 12 months ago. Indeed despite his ranking, Federer’s results outshone the Serb’s: A final in Brisbane, the semis at the Australian Open and the Dubai title—incidentally beating Djokovic.
These two stars of the tennis stage owned not just six Indian Wells Masters crowns but a further 31 Masters titles between them. Not one of the other six quarter-finalists had laid claim to any.
But a quick look at all the other contenders showed that every one of them—with the exception of the 65-ranked Frenchman Julian Benneteau who would line up against Djokovic—was in very fine form.
The other bottom quarter pitted John Isner—twice a Masters finalist, a winner this year in Auckland and a semi-finalist in Delray Beach—against the undoubted talent of Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian, with his explosive temperament reined in, was at a career high courtesy of the Marseille title and a semi run in Rotterdam.
Those two quarters would wait for the Friday schedule. Meanwhile, the top half pitted Federer against the late maturing 6ft 8in Kevin Anderson, also enjoying a career-high ranking, and the reason was clear. He arrived in California with back-to-back finals in Delray Beach and Acapulco.
And the first quarter-final featured two very contrasting players who have long threatened to break into the big time. The slender, nimble 25-year-old Alexandr Dolgopolov was back to playing the exciting brand of tennis that took him to No13 two years ago. He was already the biggest riser in the top 50 this season after the Rio final and Acapulco semis, and would climb to 23 with victory over Milos Raonic.
And although the tall, powerful Canadian had been hampered by an ankle injury since Australia, he was the other man in the draw to experience a Masters final before, in Montreal last year. Judging by his tennis against Andy Murray—full of attack and intent—his tie up with Ivan Ljubicic was already bearing fruit.
So this match-up in particular, the first between the Dolgopolov and Raonic, promised much: lightness of movement versus heavy artillery, touch and variety versus serve and first-strike winners, the unpredictable and unconventional against old-school power.
The first set seemed to go in a flash, with Raonic looking completely out of his depth against the unorthodox style and flashing racket-work of the man from the Ukraine.
Dolgopolov has an unusual and very fast service action, and Raonic could not get a read on that or on many of his looping, acutely angled forehands. Dolgopolov earned a break point in the second game with a superb backhand winner down the line and converted it with wrong-footing backhand.
Indeed the Ukrainian, with such speed and variety of touch, was able to wrong foot the big Canadian many times, and the pressure showed in the Raonic serve. In his first three matches, he had hit 59 aces—an average of one every third serve—but he began to over-compensate to avoid receiving such difficult balls from his opponent, and made fewer than half his first serves—and only two aces in the set.
Dolgopolov tested his opponent’s sideways movement, rushing him at every turn, and did not face a break point: The first set was his, 6-3, with another running forehand pass.
The second set saw Raonic regroup and play with more confidence—and with more success on his serve. He appeared to read the Dolgopolov game faster, too, and some fine attacking rallies gave him a quick break. He fought off two break points in the third game to hold for a 3-0 lead and looked increasingly dominant. The safe money would have bet on him serving out the set, but that was to underestimate Dolgopolov.
The Ukrainian pressed again in the fifth game, went 0-40 up on Raonic’s serve, only to be frustrated by four first serves from the big man and a remarkable reflex volley winner.
But Dolgopolov’s returning, turn of speed and changes of direction kept the pressure on, drawing a couple of double faults in the longest game of the match. He was finally rewarded with two more chances to break, and took the second with a spectacular forehand pass.
Dolgopolov now looked suffused with confidence, and threw in a super-fast hold to love: They were all square, 3-3 and 23 points apiece.
However, the balance of power and momentum was with Dolgopolov, and he broke Raonic again to take a lead that he would not lose. The match was done in under 80 minutes, 6-4.
In the end, it was a breathtaking victory—metaphorically but also literally: Dolgopolov was a boundless bundle of energy and creativity that Raonic simple could not handle.
The Ukrainian man has one of the biggest and most captivating smiles on the tour, and he was more than justified in beaming at his captivated audience: He was into his first Masters semi-final. He has played this kind of tennis before but often floundered at the last moment, whether from physical or mental weariness it was not clear.
But this resurgence up the rankings has been accompanied, on the evidence of the last few months, by an improvement on both counts. Long may it last, for this young man play a special kind of uninhibited, joyous tennis.
And the Ukrainian’s reward is a semi-final meeting with Federer. The 32-year-old dismissed Anderson 7-5 6-1 to leave the world number eight on the brink of a fifth Indian Wells title.