It’s hard to keep your eyes off Alexandr Dolgopolov. Even when he’s being beaten comprehensively, you’re waiting with bated breath to see what piece of demented brilliance or wild error he’s going to come up with next. Sadly for the Ukrainian, there was more of the latter than the former on display in a 6-3, 6-2 defeat to Rafael Nadal today in the fourth round of Indian Wells.
It should be noted that even when Dolgopolov hit the closest thing to a purple patch during today’s match, Nadal never looked like losing. In scoring his 34th win at Indian Wells, he played a well-nigh impeccable match, serving at 65 percent and winning 82 percent of points behind his first serve, hitting 12 winners and only seven unforced errors. He also left the distinct impression that he would have done more had he been pushed more, adding to the ominous sense that he has more than enough left in the tank as he enters the quarterfinals to face one-time bête noire David Nalbandian. At this rate, it will be more than surprising if he does not make the final.
For point-to-point, must-watch tennis TV, however, it’s hard not to like Dolgopolov. All talent and hands, he set out his stall early when he leaned back and redirected Nadal’s serve at 30-15 in the first game of the match for a clean and wholly unexpected backhand winner. Down 15-40 on his serve in the next game, he saved a break point with a skating, skittering run into the net for a high backhand volley, only to duplicate the play and completely mess it up on the next point. A certain mercurial quality is inherent in the kind of thrilling creative tennis that Dolgopolov plays, but today there was far too much of the bad, only occasionally shot through with the good. The closest he came to making an impact was with Nadal serving for the first set at 5-3, when he strung together three bizarre and brilliant points to earn three break points. But was unable to capitalize on his best chance—a soft second serve—when he put the return somewhere the camera couldn’t locate.
The pattern would repeat in the second set at 0-1, 30-30 on Nadal’s serve, and again as the Spaniard was serving for the match. Dolgopolov was simply hamstrung by his inability to convert on any of the five break points he earned, and was unable to hold his own serve when his forehand often couldn’t find the court. It wasn’t so much that slow and steady won the race, more that Dolgopolov never truly got out of the blocks.
So Nadal passes another test in Indian Wells with a minimum of drama and only a modicum of energy expended. As he progresses in the tournament, he may not be able to count on his opponent hitting 33 unforced errors, but he will be able to rely on having reserves of energy to spare.