The top two seeds Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic made their exits unusually early, and were joined by fellow top-10 men Rafael Nadal, Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gael Monfils before the quarter-finals.
Even the former Grand Slam champion Juan Martin del Potro and the highest-ranked #NextGen star Sascha Zverev did not make it past the third round, beaten by a killer quarter of the draw that dealt such a blow to defending and five-time champion Djokovic and three-time champion Nadal. There was, indeed, room for only one of the three former champs to make the semis in this packed quarter: and it proved to be Roger Federer.
Despite being seeded No9, despite an uncharacteristic exit from Dubai a fortnight before, and despite the fact that he was, he continued to stress, still coming back from the knee surgery that ended his 2016 season at Wimbledon, Federer was the one to survive, and not just survive. The 35-year-old had not dropped a set, not been broken, and faced only one break point against Nadal.
This would be his 10th semi-final in Indian Wells, he had gone on to reach six finals, win four times, and rack up a record 55 match-wins in the desert.
The evergreen, ever-popular Federer, though, was just one reason to pull the crowds to the concluding weekend at the Tennis Garden. The top half of the draw had seen another over-30 Swiss, and the No3 seed to boot, survive all-comers.
Stan Wawrinka, US Open champion and losing semi-finalist against Federer in Australia—where he came within touching distance of victory—is a big-time player, a crowd-pleaser, the pin-up boy for late-bloomers, and he had survived a stern test against No8 seed Dominic Thiem to reach his first semi in the desert.
Could the two Swiss set a replay of their Melbourne five-set showdown? It was in the hands to two new faces to determine.
Both Pablo Carreno Busta, age 25, and Jack Sock, age 24, were at career-high rankings of 23 and 18 respectively. Both had been beaten in both previous meetings with their opponents—Spanish Carreno Busta against Wawrinka, American Sock against Federer. And while neither had made the semis of a Masters before, both had showed growing confidence and form in the last year—and had enjoyed plenty of success in doubles competition.
Wawrinka was first up, and in the oppressive midday heat, would surely hope to get things done quickly. His last two matches had been decided in final set tie-breakers, and this was no weather to be kept on court for hours.
It did not take him long to hit his stride. The Spaniard lived with Wawrinka for six games, surviving a break point for 3-3, but come the eighth game, Wawrinka fired up his formidable ground strokes to break, thumped a 100mph forehand and a smash to hold for the set, 6-3.
Carreno Busta opened the second with an impressive love hold, producing two fine forehand winners, but the writing was soon on the wall again in the third game. Seven deuces, five break points, some brave net plays to fend off Wawrinka, but the Spaniard could not hold.
Now the Swiss, playing still more freely, broke again in the seventh and took the victory with a love hold after just 64 minutes.
The quietly-spoken Swiss admitted that he was happy with his level of play: “I felt better since I got the first break, moved better, more in control of the rallies. If I make the final here, it is because I’m playing well.”
And yes, he was now going to watch the second semi-final, but would not predict the winner.
When Federer met Sock at Indian Wells in 2015, the American was ranked only 59. By the time they met in Basel the same year, he was up to 29. Now he was just a few places short of the top 10—fitter, faster and more confident than ever.
Not that it showed in the fast first set. Aside from two early netted backhands, Federer dominanted. In the fourth game, a backhand winner, followed by a netted smash and double fault from Sock, handed a love break.
Federer consolidated with an easy hold, and broke again courtesy of a volley winner, a backhand return of serve winner and a final forehand. It was blistering tennis, and to make matters worse for Sock, he had to take on board some tablets from the medic: He had, after all, played four straight three-setters to get here.
Sure enough, Federer finished the set off in around 21 minutes, 6-1, with three aces. But in the second set, Sock began to relax, perhaps feeling less sore, and he was serving first.
They stayed on level terms for six games, before Sock faced a break point in the seventh courtesy of a Federer forehand. But he saved it and held with an ace.
Indeed now, Sock’s serving was better than Federer’s: His level rose to over 60 percent and he dropped only three points from 26 on that first serve. In contrast, Federer was struggling to get a first serve into play, his level dropping to under 50 percent. Yet by 4-4, the Swiss had made 24 winners to Sock’s 10 despite facing his first deuce, and they edged to a tie-break.
Sock certainly had the momentum: a love hold and then a 3-1 lead in the tie-break. But Federer pulled back the lead, served at 5-4, and almost inevitably held both points on serve to take the win, 7-6(4), after 74 minutes.
It had been, he admitted, a little tough in the end, though that is what he expected:
“He’s played too well this week not to do well. He had a shocker of a first set. I played well but he was missing all sorts of stuff so it was hard once he started to play better. Turned out to be how I expected the first set to be, a struggle, balls flying all over the place, missing a few shots because it was tougher to see. So I’m happy I made it in straight sets because he was looking a little better at the end of the second set.”
It set up, of course, that highly anticipated rematch with friend, compatriot and rival Wawrinka. The two Swiss have met 22 times before, and all three of Wawrinka’s wins have come on clay. In their only previous final, however, in Monte Carlo, Wawrinka won in three sets.
So it may not be the final that many expected this week, but with so much history both with and against one another, and both Federer and Wawrinka playing such confident, fast and attacking tennis, it will be no less welcome for that.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas