Indian Wells 2014: Djokovic sees rivals Del Potro and Berdych head home
Indian Wells 2014: Juan Martin del Potro pulls out with wrist injury as Tomas Berdych is beaten by Roberto Bautista Agut
One of the big themes when the men’s draw for Indian Wells hit the news-stands was the imbalance between the two halves.
At the top was world No1 and three-time champion Rafael Nadal, already with two titles, a final finish at the Australian Open, and a 16-1 win-loss for the season.
In his quarter was Andy Murray, making a strong, steady return to form after back surgery. The draw could bring them together for the first time since Murray became US Open, Olympic and Wimbledon champion, and Murray won their last meeting in Tokyo in 2011.
The other quarter threw together the single-handed Swiss backhands of Stan Wawrinka and four-time champion Roger Federer. The last time they met was here exactly 12 months ago, and Federer won—but only just, 6-3, 6-7, 7-5. Since then, they have swapped positions in the rankings for the first time, and Wawrinka has won his first Grand Slam in a thus-far unbeaten run in 2014. Meanwhile, Federer’s form has also been on the rise, and he arrived in California fresh from winning the Dubai title.
Come the fourth round, all four of the big names were still present and correct. Indeed 13 of the original 16 seeds were still intact. The highest of them, Mikhail Youzhny, was forced to withdraw with injury before he began, while No18 Jerzy Janowicz and the lowest seed in the draw, No32 Pablo Andujar, were beaten—though the latter was replaced by a formidable newcomer, the 20-year-old 6ft 6in “ATP Star of Tomorrow”, Jiri Vesely.
It remains, then, a heavy half in which any one of several names—the big Milos Raonic, the flamboyant Gael Monfils, the career-high-ranked No18, Kevin Anderson, the evergreen No12 Tommy Haas—could cause an upset among the elite foursome.
And so to the bottom half, and a draw headed by world No2 and two-time champion, Novak Djokovic. He arrived in Indian Wells without a title for the first time since 2006 and with only eight main-tour matches under his belt. Not that such results have been a cause for alarm: He admitted in Dubai that he had taken time off to recuperate both mind and body after an extraordinary unbroken end-of-season run of 24 wins and four titles in 2013, including two Masters and the World Tour Finals.
And there is no doubt the draw looked a favourable one. The only two men to beat him this year, Wawrinka and Federer, were in the other half. His first big threat, No6 seed Juan Martin del Potro, was carrying a persistent wrist injury. His first potential seed, Ivan Dodig, made the No31 cut courtesy of injury withdrawals further up the rankings. And he led the biggest seed in his half, Tomas Berdych, by 15-2.
That said, Berdych was enjoying his best-ever start to a season, posing a continuing and increasing threat from a career-high No5 ranking. He sealed the complete set of Grand Slam semis at the Australian Open—losing narrowly to the eventual champion Wawrinka—won in Rotterdam and reached the final of Dubai, where he led Federer by a set and a break before ultimately losing. It made an impressive 16-3 run, and he looked a shoo-in to the fourth round at least.
But by the time the seeds had played out their first round, though, half of the 16 seeds were gone and, from Djokovic’s perspective, it could not have opened up better. Last year’s losing finalist, Del Potro, withdrew before he hit a ball, saying of his wrist:
“It’s still hurting a lot. I’m not feeling 100 per cent. I’m not in good condition to compete.”
His place was taken the ‘lucky loser’ Briton, James Ward, who put up a valiant fight, indeed looked the superior player for half the match, against the unseeded Feliciano Lopez, but the Spaniard advanced.
In the Del Potro segment, more seeds tumbled in quick succession. Vasek Pospisil, who has also struggled with injuries this season, managed just two games in his loss to Mikhail Kukushkin. Then Gilles Simon fell to the fast-rising youngster, Dominic Thiem, in straight sets. Even so, another powerful and charismatic Frenchman, No9 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, should have been a worthy substitute for Del Potro.
By the end of the day, though, he had also fallen in his opener against fellow Frenchman Julien Benneteau, 6-4, 6-4, thus failing to record a land-mark 200th win on hard courts. In a battle of experience over youth, the 32-year-old No65 Benneteau will take on the 20-year-old Thiem.
Closer to home, Djokovic’s first seeded opponent, Dodig, also lost his opener to Alejandro Gonzalez. For the 91-ranked Colombian, it marked only his second win of the year: He beat Adrian Mannarino in the first round.
Amid these tumbling seeds, only two remain in the Djokovic quarter, and they will face one another for the honour of taking on the Serb. One of them, though, should pose a significant challenge.
Marin Cilic, a former top-10 player, is one of the clutch of big players taking on big-name coaches this season—in his case, fellow Croat Goran Ivanisevic. The tall and talented Croat has surged back from his extended absence last summer with improved serve and confidence to notch up an ATP tour-best 19-4 record this year, which includes two titles in Zagreb and Delray Beach, sandwiched by a final in Rotterdam.
In Indian Wells, he took only 71 minutes to beat qualifier Paolo Lorenzi, 6-2, 6-2, and will next play Tommy Robredo after the Spanish veteran needed over two-and-a-half hours to get past Marinko Matosevic 7-6, 5-7, 6-4.
In truth, Cilic looks the only man with enough form to interrupt Djokovic’s progress to the quarters, and even he has never beaten the Serb.
But the question of who Djokovic may meet in the semis was thrown into disarray by the shock exit of Berdych to world No53, Roberto Bautista Agut. It was the Czech’s first loss in an opening match of a Masters since Montreal 2009.
Bautista Agut had led 4-2 in the first set before Berdych won four straight games, and Bautista Agut came within one point of leading 4-1 in the deciding set before Berdych again battled back, only to be broken for the fifth time at 4-4.
After two hours and 23 minutes, the Spaniard took his second top-10 scalp of the year—he also beat Del Potro in the Australian Open—to face the unseeded Jarkko Nieminen, who advanced when No26 seed Florian Mayer retired.
Also out is Philipp Kohlschreiber. He lost 6-2, 6-2 to Yen-hsun Lu, who will play the 2012 finalist, a man almost a foot taller than himself, John Isner, in the next round. By chance, they also played each other a few weeks ago, when Isner edged Lu in a pair of tie-breaks in the Auckland final.
Isner is one of a number of men who could snatch the semi-final spot vacated by Berdych. He made great use of the flying balls in Indian Wells to hit 15 aces and, more pleasing still, made a lot of successful forays to the net.
Another candidate is the next highest remaining seed after Djokovic: Richard Gasquet advanced when his opponent also retired and will play No30 seed, Fernando Verdasco.
But the biggest threat now comes between two super-talented young men, both in good form, who will next play one another: Ernests Gulbis made 25/25 on his first serve to beat Joao Sousa, while No15 seed Grigor Dimitrov beat Robin Haase, 6-4, 6-3, in only 70 minutes.
Both men have a title already this year, and in their two meetings this year, they have shared the honours. It was a stand-out contest when the draw was made, and with so many big names out of their path, it could open up a point-rich run all the way to the semis for the winner.