Indian Wells 2018: Far-from-perfect Federer survives 2-day test, but Djokovic bows out
Roger Federer is through to the last 32 of the Indian Wells Masters but Novak Djokovic is beaten by world number 109 Taro Daniel
It was time for the biggest champions in Indian Wells to take to court amid the oft-praised perfection of this oasis in the Californian desert.
Both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have won the most prestigious Masters title on the ATP tour five times, but their presence in Indian Wells this year was accompanied by even more hype than usual.
Only days before the draw was made, there was still no certainty about Djokovic’s participation. He was in the USA, for sure, practising with Andre Agassi in the latest stage of rehab from a minor operation on the elbow that had kept him off the tour since Wimbledon. But sure enough, arrive he did.
He came to California at an uncommonly low ranking by the standards of the 68-title-winning Serbian star—No13, his lowest in exactly 11 years. He broke the top 10 after making the final at this very tournament, still just 19 years old, and went on to post a 49-7 record via those five titles.
Even so, his first match against qualifier Taro Daniel would not normally cause too much concern. But because this was his first outing of the year aside from the four matches he played at the Australian Open, it was keenly anticipated. He had looked fit, lean, and happy in his practice outings, but fans needed the reassurance of a strong win: Would he give it to them?
He was seeded No10, making an interesting counterpoint to Federer’s position here last year. The Swiss arrived in 2017 at No9 after his own long injury absence, and he, like Djokovic this time around, faced a tough draw that reflected that relatively lowly ranking.
He would nevertheless beat all-comers, and arrived in Indian Wells this year at No1, and with a clean slate of wins through the Hopman Cup, the Australian Open, and Rotterdam. Now was now trying to defend the Indian Wells title and keep that No1 ranking.
Two great champions with two compelling storylines could even find their paths crossing in the title match—but that was a distant prospect in a draw of 96 men.
That draw and the schedule should have ensured that they did not meet any sooner, but the schedule went out of the window as this perfect corner of the tennis world turned into something far less than perfect. It rained, and much as that was needed in a drought-ridden California, the timing was unfortunate.
Federer would become the only man in the top half of the men’s draw unable to complete his opening match on Saturday as the drizzle moved in.
His contest against left-hander Federico Delbonis was an interesting one, too, because the 67-ranked Argentine had won their only previous meeting in 2013 in Hamburg. Now, to compound the intrigue, their match was an hour late to start, the conditions were cool, damp and heavy, and Federer’s timing was way off.
He would edge the first set of this, his 70th match at Indian Wells, breaking in the fourth game. But he was lucky to survive break-points as he served for the set: Delbonis offered up a couple of untimely errors, and the set was done, 6-3.
The Swiss, like Indian Wells itself, continued to look less than perfect, looked edgy, was unshaven, shook his head as the errors piled up. He had 19 of them in the 35-minute set to just 10 winners, and by the time they had reached 1-1 in the second set, he had hit seven more. Then at 2-2, play was halted, and the two men sat out a long delay until the match was abandoned for the night.
So both had to return the next afternoon, adjust back to hotter, drier conditions, and regain their concentration very quickly.
But before that, there was not a little drama for Djokovic. Because Daniel, whose only main-tour win of the season thus far was in beating Cameron Norrie to reach the second round, came out swinging. Djokovic seemed able to contain him, not least with some good serving in the early games, and he broke in fourth. He held at 5-2, but serving for the set, Daniel got his chance, and broke back.
Djokovic went for first-strike winners against the Japanese man’s serve, earned deuce, but could not break: it would be a tie-break, and Daniel rode his momentum for a 3-1 lead, and served it out, 7-6(3), after one hour.
Djokovic was making uncharacteristic errors, perhaps lacking some of his peak sharpness and speed with so little match-play, but he was able to take advantage of a poor service game from Daniel in the eighth to break, 5-3, and then held on by the skin of his teeth, through two break points and three deuces, to take the set, 6-4.
He was having to dig deep, but he began to look drained, a little slow to respond to his opponent, and the errors began to leak from his racket. Once Daniel had saved break point in the first game of the decider, it would become one-way traffic. Djokovic held on through a clutch of break points for 1-1, but would not win another game.
He double faulted to concede one last break, 1-5, and Daniel served his way into the third round of a Masters event for the first time, 6-1, after two and a half hours.
A bewildered Djokovic, after ending the match with 61 unforced errors to his name, was soon into press, congratulating Daniel, before admitting:
“It felt like the first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird. I mean, I just completely lost my rhythm. But I was grateful to be out on the court that quickly after surgery.”
Daniel will next face Leonardo Mayer, who beat lucky loser, Ruben Bemelmans—the replacement for Kei Nishikori, who pulled out with illness. And Daniel was not the only qualifier to reach the last 32: Yuki Bhambir beat No9 seed Lucas Pouille, 6-4, 6-4.
And what of Federer, and that less than perfect beginning?
Well he followed Djokovic onto court—the closest their paths would come to crossing—and play rather better tennis than the previous night.
Delbonis played strongly, too, and had a break chance on Federer’s first service game of the afternoon, but the Swiss quickly settled into his attacking rhythm, his serving level rose to 70 percent, and he twice held to love in under a minute. It headed to a tie-break.
Federer took command, but Delbonis continued to come up with attacking cross-court strikes to close down the 5-2 gap, and suddenly he had a set point courtesy of Federer’s first double fault of the match. But an untimely error from the Argentine, and it was gone: Federer served out his 450th Masters match, 7-6(6).
And while it was not perfect—a tally of 40 unforced errors proving the point—and the usually smooth Swiss was still unshaven, it was good enough to extend his unbeaten record for 2018 just a little further.