INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—It was the matador versus the bull today in the first Indian Wells men's quarterfinal, and the matador got gored. With elan and style, Nicolas Almagro plays like a cape-puller, striking out-of-nowhere winners from seemingly troublesome positions. His opponent on the day, Novak Djokovic, is the tour's bull, an in-your-face aggressor who hugs the baseline like its his lifeline. Engaging in riveting probes and parries, the rallies featured some of the best shot-making of the tournament. In the end, Djokovic played his best match of the event, breaking the 12th-ranked Spaniard twice in the first set and once again in the second, scoring a 6-3, 6-4 win in one hour and 26 minutes.
The 26-year-old Almagro has a big game for a little guy. He's listed at six feet and 185 pounds, and while the weight might be right, he looked far smaller than Djokovic, who stands 6'2" but weighs 176 pounds. In the match's first game, Almagro struck two aces, the second one traveling 130 mph. But in his second service game, Almagro was broken at 15. Djokovic broke again when Almagro contributed his second double fault of the set, which the Serb wrapped up in a tidy 31 minutes,
Djokovic does not take points off, even when down love-40. In the first game of the second set, he climbed back from this precipice to square the game at deuce. Suddenly, it looked like Almagro was ready to fold. But not unlike Djokovic's opponent yesterday, Pablo Andujar, Almagro rallied to make this a compelling battle. A clay-court star, Almagro can also play on hard courts, as his semifinal showing at Chennai and fourth-round run at this year's Australian Open indicate. Unlike another Spanish rival of Djokovic's, he plays to a fast pace and eschews all form of accoutrements, although he could have used a hat, headband, or wristbands during this hot afternoon, with the sun high.
The crowd here in the desert was decidedly on Almagro's side. There were many chants of "Nico" and "Nicolai," and one of the only times a fan in the upper levels called out for Djokovic, she did so alone. In the seventh game of the second set, Almagro hit seven unforced errors (six off his dynamic backhand wing) and one double fault, but he escaped two break points with big service winners out wide, winning an eight-deuce game with a 126 mph ace (out wide). Buoyed, Almagro was ready to pounce. He took a love-40 lead in the next game, but like so many times in this match, Djokovic served himself out of trouble. (For the second straight match, the Serb didn't double fault.)
Djokovic doesn't lose to players with one-handed backhands not named Roger Federer very often. The last time was two years ago here in Indian Wells against Ivan Ljubicic, in the round of 16. He promptly broke Almagro, who hit too many unforced errors to upset a player of Djokovic's constant and accurate assault, and served out the match at love with an ace and a bullet, down-the-line backhand winner, struck like a slap shot. Next up for the Serb is the winner of tonight's John Isner-Gilles Simon match.
Dan Markowitz is writing a book about the 2012 season titled "Chasing The GOAT: Roger, Rafa & Nole"