Indian Wells: Djokovic d. Benneteau
Novak Djokovic swiveled his neck in circles and shifted from side to side, standing in Julien Benneteau's shadow, while the Frenchman gnawed at his fingernail as the pair awaited the call before stepping onto stadium court this afternoon.
It was the last time the world No. 2 would trail the Frenchman and the only time this match was a nail-biter.
Mixing deep cross-court combinations with drives straight down the middle, Djokovic gave Benneteau every opportunity to implode, and world No. 65 complied in a brutal crash and burn. When the dust settled, Djokovic posted a 6-1, 6-3 demolition to roll into the Indian Wells semifinals for the fourth straight year.
These two have a history and it reads like a horror show for Benneteau, who had lost five in a row to the Serb. Djokovic is a cleaner ball striker, smoother mover, and more flexible defender, which limits Benneteau's options. He doesn't possess the jolting power to end points with one shot, can't match Djokovic in running rallies, and often made a mess of his forays to net.
Benneteau belted the vibration dampener out his string bed hitting an ace in the third game, but he could not dislodge Djokovic from the baseline or consistently clear the net with his flat strikes. Handcuffed by a deep return, the Benneteau netted a backhand and followed by putting a forehand and backhand into net, donating serve to fall behind 3-1. Djokovic quickly backed up the break with his second love hold in three service games, extending his lead to 4-1.
Players concede they often feel pressure to lift their levels against Grand Slam champions, but simply clearing the net was a major hurdle for Benneteau. He buried shot after shot into the net, committing three times as many errors as Djokovic (17 to five) in the 28-minute opening set in which the second seed won 10 of 12 points played on Benneteau's second serve and conceded only three points (16 of 19) on his own serve.
If you've played competitive tennis at any level, you've probably felt days of futility Benneteau experienced when the net looks as large as the back wall, the court shrinks to the size of a chessboard, and you struggle to squeeze shots between the lines. Those obstacles were compounded by Djokovic's ability to force errors from Benneteau's unruly running forehand.
Squinting into the high mid-day sun, Benneteau fought off seven break points in his first three service games of the second set. Djokovic hit a sloppy patch in the sixth game, but navigated a two double-fault game to hold for 3-all. A drive down the line gave Djokovic triple break point in the seventh game. He only needed one as Benneteau gagged on a second serve, pushing it into net to donate the break and a 4-3 lead.
Djokovic scored his fourth service break to close an efficient, 68-minute match that was never really in doubt: The two-time champion never faced a break point and committed 20 fewer errors than his opponent (12 to 32).
Continuing his quest for his first final of the season, Djokovic will play either 12th-seeded John Isner, who beat him in the 2012 Indian Wells semifinals, or 20th-seeded Latvian Ernests Gulbis for a spot in the title match.
"Both are big servers; I lost to John 7-6 in the third set in the semifinals a few years ago," Djokovic told ESPN's Pam Shriver afterward. "In my opinion, it's easier to return against a big server at night, but obviously we're [going to be] playing during the day. At least I've gotten used to the conditions. I know how it feels around this time of day."
A Top 5-ranked player has raised the Indian Wells title trophy in 12 of the last 13 years; Djokovic hopes that trend continue—he is the lone Top 5 player still standing.