Juan Martin Del Potro - BNP Paribas Open

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Reaching the semifinals or better at four consecutive American tournaments, the 2009 US Open champion has progressed more swiftly in his comeback from wrist surgery than we had expected.  Without the luxury of first-round bye, Del Potro received a welcome respite when quarterfinal opponent Tommy Robredo offered him a walkover.  Appearing somewhat jaded during his two-tiebreak victory over Kohlschreiber in the preceding round, he now has the opportunity to replenish his energy for what should become a highly physical encounter.  While dropping his first four meetings to Nadal, including a limp quarterfinal at this event’s 2009 edition, the Argentine looked intimidated and tentative against such a fiery competitor as the Spaniard.  Without warning, the momentum in their rivalry then swung sharply in the opposite direction when Del Potro rallied from a double-break deficit in the third set of a Miami quarterfinal to ambush Rafa in a tiebreak.  That stunning comeback branded itself upon Nadal’s psyche and left scars that reappeared in the Argentine’s emphatic victories later that summer, including a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 annihilation at the US Open.  Just as Del Potro once had looked uneasy and uncertain against Rafa, Rafa began to waver and tremble under the assault of the Tower of Tandil.

But the Tower of Tandil has not quite towered over the opposition in his comeback as he did during that memorable US Open campaign.  Falling to Verdasco in San Jose and Roddick in Memphis, Del Potro struggled to hold serve and to unleash his fabled cross-court forehand with the fearlessness that he possessed before his surgery.  While he merits praise for outlasting inspired opposition here such as Dolgopolov and Kohlschreiber, players whom he might have dispatched routinely in 2009 have dragged him into arduous battles.  On the other hand, Nadal has not ascended to his customary heights in his first four matches.  Perhaps uninspired by three consecutive qualifiers in the first three rounds, Rafa barely solved the riddle of defusing Karlovic’s serve on Thursday.  Twice within two points of a stunning upset, the Croat tested the Spaniard’s composure with every ace that crashed through the court.  Although Nadal ultimately prevailed, he betrayed his ruffled emotions by missing a few more first serves and passing-shot attempts than he typically would have.  Can he rediscover his poise against a recurrent nemesis who will offer him much more rhythm from the baseline?  This semifinal should open a window onto Nadal’s confidence and Del Potro’s fitness, both physical and mental.  While Rafa should earn his revenge, the Argentine will gain considerable momentum from this tournament if he can prove his ability to once again challenge the ATP elite.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

Djokovic vs. Federer:  Dueling for the #2 ranking, these supernovas have collided repeatedly since mid-2010 and thrown sparks into the tennis universe on almost every occasion.  The only player to whom Federer has lost this year, Djokovic took the GOAT by the horns at each of the last two majors in contrasting fashions.  Winning all five of the sets that he has contested with the Swiss in 2011, the Serb not only outserved him in Melbourne and Dubai but won the majority of their forehand-to-forehand battles, a trend that the current #2 must reverse in order to regain the momentum in their rivalry.  Rather than hammering away at Djokovic from the baseline, however, Federer should consider varying the pace and height of his shots in order to destabilize his opponent’s rhythm.  Pursuing those tactics early in the second set of their Australian Open semifinal, he abandoned them once he arrived in a commanding position and watched his fortunes fade thereafter.  Typically reluctant to concede any weakness, Federer may recoil from admitting that he can project less power from the baseline than can Djokovic at this stage in their respective careers.

Despite advancing to the semifinals without dropping a set, Federer looked fallible at times against Andreev and Harrison, both of whom forced him into tiebreaks.  By contrast, few players reach the semifinals of a Masters 1000 event with a record more spotless than Djokovic’s sweep through his first four matches, losing 12 total games and breaking his opponents in 20 of 29 return games.  Less auspicious for the Serb is an ailing knee that required a trainer visit early in the second set of his quarterfinal victory over Gasquet.  Trailing by a break in both sets against the Frenchman, Djokovic deserves credit for recovering rapidly from those lulls and gathering his focus before the momentum slid too far towards his opponent.  Nevertheless, Gasquet looked unconvinced (probably correctly) that he could threaten the third seed, who thus never found himself under significant pressure.  Such a situation does not describe a clash with an adversary surely more motivated than ever to assert his command over a rivalry that he once dominated.

While Djokovic should have ample motivation to wrest the #2 ranking from Federer’s grasp, the Swiss superstar may not burn with equal determination to retain it.  As he once remarked in an interview, only the #1 position matters for a competitor at his vertiginous height.  Moreover, these Masters 1000 events probably spur the Serb more than the Swiss, who has not won a hard-court Masters 1000 event outside Cincinnati since 2006.  Regularly shining on the fast surface there, Federer may find the slow courts at Indian Wells less to his liking as his consistency wanes.  On the other hand, he remains the only player in either the ATP or the WTA to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, a feat that will infuse him with even more inspiring memories than those of the 2008 champion.

***

Will Roger and Rafa meet at Indian Wells for the first time in their careers, or will Djokovic face Nadal here for the third time in the last five years?  Or will the long arms of Del Potro reach out to intercept the favorites and snare his maiden Masters 1000 shield?  Spectators should eagerly anticipate two Saturday semifinals that feature the four players who have won every major title since Roland Garros 2005.

 

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