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Indian Wells 2011: Pass the Baton, Please

Most people have trouble remembering the matches that occur before the final of a tournament, and not without reason. The finale of any tournament, after all, is where all the money is, both literally and figuratively – it is the one match that separates the winner from the also-rans; the one match that, in most cases, defines the event. Rome 2006 is what it is because of the epic Federer-Nadal duel it produced in the final, one of the first of its kind; the WTA year-end championship of 2007 is what it is because of the gladiatorial Henin-Sharapova battle it gave us in the decider, the only one of its kind. But in the Indian Wells tournament that culminated yesterday with Novak Djokovic’s emphatic victory over Rafael Nadal in the final, the most enduring moments, for me at least, will be the manner in which the two men’s semifinals unfolded. The tournament might as well have been called ‘A Tale of Two Semifinals’ for the potentially far-reaching ramifications thrown up by the performances of the 4 protagonists, who, incidentally, were the 4 men to have won the last 24 Majors.

Novak Djokovic in full battle-cry

Juan Martin del Potro chose his first significant semifinal showing since the start of his comeback from a debilitating wrist injury to announce to the world that he’s finally come close to his best tennis. In a blazing start to the match, del Potro showed off his rock solid serve, his brawny yet consistent backhand, and the most fearsome of them all – his volcanic forehand. This was the time to make a statement, and make a statement Del Potro did. But after going up 4-1 in the opening set, he began to concede ground to his faster, fitter and more focused opponent. Del Potro’s movement has never been his strongest asset, and after being sidelined for nearly a year, it is natural that his footwork would be the last thing to fall in place. He could only chase after Nadal’s vicious topspin shots for so long; by the end he was barely making half-hearted efforts to lunge after them. Del Potro fell short this time, but what this performance has done is give enough warning to his peers that he may just show up at the next Major as one of the strongest contenders.

Nadal, on the other hand, displayed in this match just why he’s considered an all-time great even before his 25th birthday. No matter how much progress he may have made on the surface in the last 2 years, hardourts are just not Nadal’s thing. Del Potro’s flat bullets were penetrating through the court far more effectively than Nadal’s spinny strokes, and things weren’t looking very bright for Nadal after the first 5 games. But as he is accustomed to doing, as he has always been accustomed to doing, Nadal refused to let that come in the way of winning the match. He tightened up his game and refused to miss; he sprinted, he jumped and he fist-pumped, and by the end he had managed, just like that, to turn the match into a routine straight-setter. If Nadal can do something like that on a hardcourt, against an opponent as formidable as Del Potro, I wonder how many routine straight-setters he’s going to inflict on his peers once the clay season rolls around.

Speaking of routine straight-setters, Roger Federer must, if nothing else, be relieved that he avoided that fate in his semifinal against Djokovic. The first set threatened to be competitive at around the half-way stage, but as he did in the Australian Open semifinal and the Dubai final earlier this year, Djokovic lifted his game at just the right moment, exhibiting some spectacular defense to go with his attacking blasts off both wings; before you knew it, he had pocketed the first set with some semblance of ease. In the second set, though, Djokovic’s game deserted him completely, and it was Federer’s turn to grab his chance and wrap up the set with a minimum of fuss. What surprised me most, however, is how little I was surprised when Federer came up short in the decider yet again, meekly fading into the sunset once it became clear that Djokovic had no intention of giftwrapping the match away. When Federer, he of the surreal, almost supernatural flying forehand, comes out on the wrong end of most of the forehand-to-forehand exchanges in the match, you know that the writing really is on the wall.

Federer may go blue in the face denying it, but his rivalry with Djokovic has acquired a distinctly evolutionary tone of late. In Melbourne, Djokovic was in an extended state of those rare ‘in-the-zone’ moments, and there wasn’t much Federer could have done to reverse the result. In Dubai, Federer came out flat and low on intensity, and Djokovic didn’t have to produce edge-of-the-seat tennis to post a comfortable victory. Here, however, things got even worse for Federer – Djokovic was far from his best, but Federer wasn’t exactly shanking his way to ignominy; he actually played a pretty tidy match from where I was watching. In other words, Federer didn’t play badly, and his opponent wasn’t on fire. Wasn’t it supposed to be impossible for Federer to lose a match unless one of those things was in full, glorious view? Maybe this is the tournament where the baton truly has passed – Djokovic is, simply, the better player today.

Actually, right now, Djokovic is a better player than just about every other man on the planet. He’s yet to lose a match this year, and the reason for that was plainly obvious all through this tournament. When he pummeled the not-so-promising-anymore Ernests Gulbis and the high-on-Davis-Cup Victor Troicki into the ground by identical margins of 6-0, 6-1 earlier in the tournament, people wondered whether it was Djokovic’s superlative game or his opponent’s wretched play that had led to such lopsided scores. We know the answer now. Djokovic is playing at a different level today, not unlike the Nadal of 2008 or the Federer of 2006. His groundstrokes are sharper and stronger than they’ve ever been, he’s shown the willingness to combine his otherworldly defense with razor-sharp offense, and most importantly, his service is clicking. Ultimately, it was the serve that proved to be the difference in the final yesterday – while Nadal’s first serve percentage nosedived after the first set, Djokovic managed, looking every inch the poised veteran, to maintain a strong hold over his nerves AND his serve all the way till the end. Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say he’s looking invincible, but the last few months he’s certainly been playing the part. The Serb has, of course, flattered to deceive in the past. In 2008 he won the Australian Open and followed it up by bagging the Indian Wells crown, but then he proceeded to fizzle out early in most of the year’s remaining tournaments, only to resurface at the year-end championships and salvage a season that had begun so promisingly. Will it be different now? Can Djokovic make the sensational start he’s had to the year really count this time? If he could defeat Federer and Nadal back-to-back without playing his best tennis, then you’ve got to think the odds are in his favor.

Caroline Wozniacki, with plenty of reasons to smile

And oh, just in case you had forgotten, Indian Wells is a dual gender event. Caroline Wozniacki, the women’s champion, summed it up perfectly when she said she wanted to make her victory speech short because she knew everyone was waiting to watch the men’s final. By all accounts this was a tournament to forget for the ladies. And if you really want me to spell out the reasons for that, here comes a long laundry list. For one thing, the Williams sisters continued their traditional Indian Wells boycott (and you thought that was going to end anytime soon). For another, Kim Clijsters, the consensus best player in the world, hobbled out of the 3rd round with an injury, and then proclaimed that she basically hates being ranked in the top 10 because she is forced to play tournaments she would otherwise have loved to skip. Oh, there was also Maria Sharapova, who decided to showcase, in painful detail, just how unreliable her serve has become. And then there was Yanina Wickmayer, that feisty Belgian who seemed destined for great things last year, putting on a performance that gave new meaning to the word ‘listless’ in her semifinal against Marion Bartoli. Clearly, Justine Henin’s second retirement couldn’t have come at a worse time (and you thought it was bad the first time).

But enough with the negativity. Wozniacki deserves better, surely. She IS the No. 1- ranked player in the world, and she did an admirable job of living up to her top billing. And significantly, both her match play and her post-match interviews seem to suggest she’s a quick learner. It’s just too bad that, at the moment, the first thing she’ll have to learn to do is live in the shadow of her male counterpart. Yes, I’m not even afraid to risk sounding sexist – Djokovic’s performance was that good. And if he continues playing the way he has these first three months of the year, the rest of the ATP may have to learn to live in his shadow too.

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