When the dust settles in the Indian Wells desert, after all the talk of the new generation bubbling up, we might still be “left” with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic fighting for the season’s first Tennis Masters Series title tomorrow.
And I think that’s what’s going to happen.
First to yesterday’s matches.
Novak Djokovic had no troubles with Julien Benneteau who looked like a guy “satisfied” with his quarterfinal effort. And Djokovic looked like a guy who knew he needed to play better and that’s what he did blowing out the Frenchman 6-1, 6-3.
“I came into Indian Wells without a title in this season and that is a different feel from previous years,” Djokovic said. “I’m on the right path and playing semifinals, which is always of course a challenge and a good result, but I want to try to go as far as I can.”
So no real surprise there. And the second match went according to form as well.
John Isner used that monster serve of his and counted on a few mental lapses from Ernests Gulbis to advance in what else, but two tiebreakers. Gulbis had his chance in the second serving for the set at 5-4 but just couldn’t gather himself and that was that. You just knew Earnie wasn’t going to beat Big John in the breaker that followed.
So three of the four semifinalists are guys who we thought would be here, the only oddball is Mr. Alexandr Dolgoplov and what an oddball he is. And I’ll start with his match against Federer.
Roger Federer v Alexandr Dolgopolov
According to Federer, he and Alex train a lot in Dubai. If that’s true then I like Roger here even more.
As Milos Raonic found out, if you haven’t had the “Dolgopolov Experience”, he’s going to be awfully tough to play. Federer has and being one of the premier problem solvers this sport has ever seen, I don’t think he’ll over too bothered bu Alex’s eccentric game.
“I’m excited,” Federer said on Thursday looking ahead. “I like to play against him. I have practiced with him a fair bit in Dubai this year at the end of last season and in the buildup. He was there for a long time in Dubai. So was I. So we caught up and played some practice matches. It was really good fun. He was playing really well in practice, you know.
“He really takes the ball early. He likes to take advantage of the fact when there is a short ball he just smashes it, and he’s got a great serve. He’s super athletic, you know. Maybe the hard work is paying off right now.”
And that hard work is absolutely paying off. The man from Ukraine is having the ride of life this week, and it could very well continue. As Nadal and others know, Alex is the kind of player when he gets going there’s not much you can do. But if Federer plays like he’s been playing – serving well, moving well, just doing everything well (except maybe returning serve), this should go straight sets.
“Playing him, I think it’s going to be an interesting matchup,” Federer assessed. “We both like to take charge of the point, and it’s going to be interesting to see how things are going to go. Definitely going to be some interesting shots out there. That’s what he has a tendency to do.”
To beat Roger, Dolgopolov will have to serve extremely well and like Roger said, take control of the point early. That’ll be the key here, the person who seizes control the earliest will win. And when needed, I like Federer’s defensive skills much more than Alex’s.
Dolgopolov, though, smartly isn’t looking at the “who” across the net.
“My goal is to be on the top as high as I can, to play with these guys, to enjoy tennis, to win matches, to win tournaments,” Dolgopolov said. “I mean, of course it’s really nice to win against those names, but, I mean, they are players. They can win; they can lose. Of course they are great players, but I wouldn’t be thinking that on the match at all. It’s a semifinal. Doesn’t matter if I play Roger or No. 100. I’m on the match, I’m on the court, and I try to win the match.”
And for Dolgopolov, maybe there’s some of the “satisfaction” of reaching his best Masters Series result. Of beating Rafael Nadal – though he really backed it well. Win or lose, he’ll be content when his head hits the pillow tonight. That won’t the case for Roger is he loses.
The pick: Federer in two
Novak Djokovic v John Isner
As I said at the start of the event, this is really a must-win tournament for Novak Djokovic. As loss here puts event more pressure on he and new coach Boris Becker for Miami. And if he doesn’t win in Miami he could go into the summer season title-less (Nadal owns the clay and grass has never been Novak’s best surface).
So this weekend is ultra-important and fortunately for him after some really patchy play at the start of the tournament he’s playing better tennis of late, really cruising in his last four sets.
But against Isner it’s not so much about his tennis, it will be about where his head is at. Because there will be a lot of “pressure points” and we’ll likely see a tiebreak or two or three. Playing Isner often is a mental battle.
Djokovic leads in this one 4-2 but John got him here in this round in 2012 in a final set breaker. They played three times last year with Novak winning in Paris and in Davis Cup but John beat him in Cincinnati.
“Two years ago I took the court believing I could win that match, so it’s much of the same here in 2014,” said Isner. “But, I think I can draw a little bit from that in 2012. It’s a good situation for me. I’d like to have the crowd on my side like I did two years ago. All that it helps me so much. It’s an advantage for me I think to play here at home. But at the same time, it’s going to be very tough.”
Given their history both are familiar with each other so there won’t be any surprises. It’s one of the best serves in the game against one of the best returns in the game. And then there are those breakers.
And because of Novak’s struggles this year, I can’t think confidence-wise he’s where he wants to be. So if we do go to a tiebreak I feel it’s advantage Isner (John’s 5-1 against Novak in breakers when they play!).
But in the end I just think Djokovic needs this more, he’ll get more break chances than John and eventually convert. So I’ll take him to get revenge for 2012 and reach his first final of the year. It won’t be easy though.
The pick: Djokovic in three
The women’s Sunday final is already set with the surprising Flavia Pennetta against Agnieszka Radwanska. ESPN News will have full coverage of the men’s semis starting at 3pm ET.
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