With all due respect to the other 90 or so men in the Indian Wells draw, the tournament had been building towards this day from the very start.
All three former champions at the biggest and brightest jewel in the ATP Masters crown, the five-time and defending champion Novak Djokovic, four-time champion Roger Federer and three-time champion Rafael Nadal, had been drawn into the same quarter, along with one of the few other men on the tour with a Grand Slam to his name, Juan Martin del Potro.
Nadal and Federer had to win their third-round matches to set a replay of their recent Australian Open final, a five-set thriller. Nadal was first up and had little trouble against Fernando Verdasco, who scored such a big win over his compatriot in the first round of the Australian Open a year ago. Nadal won, 6-3, 7-5, in an hour and a half.
Federer would close the afternoon session against No24 seed Steve Johnson, and the American’s huge serving and aggressive game ensured Federer had to stay focused and sharp throughout two tight tie-breakers. And the Swiss did, facing not a break point, hitting 32 winners, and dropping only six points in 47 first serves: 7-6(3), 7-6(4).
But it was Djokovic’s fate to meet del Potro in his second match, just as he had less than a fortnight ago in Acapulco. That one, as so many times before, went down to the wire, with Djokovic forced to pull back from a set down to win in three. Indeed, their last six matches, dating back to this same place in 2013, had been desperately close, including their five-set marathon in the Wimbledon semis, also in 2013, and del Potro’s two-tie-break win at the Rio Olympics last summer.
But then del Potro had proved equal to all three of these Indian Wells champions on many occasions. He had produced compelling performances against Federer to deny the Swiss the US Open title in 2009 and drain him of every ounce of strength in the London Olympics semi-finals, 19-17 in the final set. Their last seven matches dating back to Roland Garros 2012 had gone the distance, with the Argentine winning three of them.
Against Nadal, del Potro had won their last two matches, and in the one before, in the Indian Wells final in 2013, Nadal was forced to come back from a set down to claim the title. And so it was against Djokovic.
Who knows how many more titles del Potro may have scored were it not for the years away from court with several wrist surgeries. Of the 28 Majors since his 2009 New York victory, he had missed half of them, most recently bypassing this year’s Australian Open to recuperate from his Davis Cup exertions at the end of 2016.
No wonder Djokovic expected a tough contest:
“I have to give it my all. That’s what it takes to beat this guy. Even though he is not ranked as high and he hasn’t played that many tournaments, he’s definitely one of the best players in the world last year… He’s a tough player to beat. He’s a big guy, big serve, big forehand. Definitely not the draw that you like early in the tournament.”
But since del Potro beat Djokovic at Indian Wells in 2013, the Serb had not lost a match in this tournament—18 straight wins. One more, and he would overtake Federer’s record and join the exclusive company of Federer and Nadal with 300 Masters match-wins.
The Argentine, though, came out swinging and broke in the very first game. The aces flew down at over 130mph to consolidate for a 3-1 lead, and the No2 seed had to fend off deuce in the fifth game, too. But in the blink of an eye, Djokovic had ghosted to the net for a volley winner, del Potro misfired two forehands, and the Serb had a love break.
They remained locked at 5-5 after three love holds, and del Potro was already up to 15 clean winners in the set, but Djokovic came forward again for a touch volley then a lob, demanding maximum effort from his opponent to hold. It looked certain to got to tie-break with del Potro 30-0 up, but the Argentine missed a few first serves, Djokovic pummelled the backhand wing, and drew the error and a break point.
It took three attempts after two poor line calls, but Djokovic forced one last error from del Potro for the set, 7-5.
The Argentine, though, was not fazed. Djokovic let his level slip, dropped a backhand into the net, and the Argentine broke in the first game. After a tough hold, del Potro held a 2-0 lead and then fought off three break points in a 10-minute fourth game to hold for 3-1.
Djokovic was distracted, and it showed in his tennis: a double fault and a loose overhead, and he was down another break, 1-4. He quickly regained his focus to win a love break, but he could not deny del Potro the set, 6-4.
The Argentine, however, was under pressure from the first in the decider, resisting two break points. It took 10 minutes to reach 1-1, but Djokovic was now into his ruthless rhythm, returning sharply, dragging his opponent wide to the backhand, and switching direction with ease.
He would drop only three points on serve in the set, broke with a pin-point backhand winner, and held to love for 4-1. One last backhand, his 34th winner of the match, and Djokovic served out an impressive win, 6-1, after two and a quarter hours. Impressive, too, was the Serb’s 24 points won at the net—and significant if he takes on the net-rushing Federer in the quarters.
There is a lot of water to pass under the bridge before that. Nadal is perhaps favourite to beat Federer in the slower, higher-bouncing conditions here compared with Melbourne Park. And Djokovic’s next opponent, Nick Kyrgios, has been hugely impressive in Indian Wells, and beat Djokovic last week in the Acapulco quarter-finals. The 21-year-old Australian dominated Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-4, in just 73 minutes.
But this win for the decorated Djokovic garnered a few more milestones: He equalled Pete Sampras in 10th place in the Open era for match-wins, 762, and broke the 300 mark in Masters wins.
If he wins another match in the desert, that will tick off 50, and extend his record streak here to 20. If he survives all the challenges in this toughest of draws, he will also extend his record to 31 Masters titles—a testament to Djokovic’s consistence excellence at every level of competition.
In the other quarter of his half, No4 seed Kei Nishikori continued his seamless progress for the loss of just four games to Gilles Muller and will next play the unseeded Donald Young, who played one of three three-setters in this quarter. Jack Sock downed Grigor Dimitrov, 7-6(7) in a final set tie-breaker and will now play Malek Jaziri.
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