INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA – For the first time in four years, Novak Djokovic is without a big title to start the year. Or any title.
The Serb is used to arriving at the BNP Paribas Open with the Australian Open in his back pocket, having won the season’s first Grand Slam three straight years. He lost in the quarterfinals in Melbourne in January, and then lost in the semifinals at Dubai.
“That is a different feel from previous years,” he said.
So Djokovic is especially eager to hoist the trophy at Indian Wells, where he’s a two-time champion. He took a step toward that goal with a 6-1, 6-3 quarterfinal victory against Julien Benneteau in just over an hour on Friday.
“I’m on the right path and playing semifinals, which is always of course a challenge and a good result,” he said, “but I want to try to go as far as I can.”
Djokovic, a two-time champion at Indian Wells, will play 12th-seeded John Isner, the lone remaining American, in Saturday’s semifinals. The Serb has lost at that stage the last two years, including 2012, when Isner beat him and lost to Roger Federer in the final.
Federer, a four-time winner here, will meet Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine in the other semi.
Isner fired 13 aces to beat 20th-seeded Ernests Gulbis 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-3). Isner got broken twice to trail 4-2 in the second. He broke back at 5-5 and after Gulbis tied it 6-6, Isner dominated the second tiebreaker.
He served consecutive aces, including one at 227 kph to set up match point. Isner’s backhand down the line clinched the victory.
Djokovic never faced a break point on his serve against Benneteau, the only unseeded player left in the men’s draw. The Serb held break points on Benneteau’s serve in seven of eight games, and broke him four times during the match played in near 32 C temperatures.
It was Djokovic’s easiest match so far. He needed three sets to get by Marin Cilic and Alejandro Gonzalez, and had to win a tiebreaker against Victor Hanescu in his opening match.
On the women’s side, No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska beat sixth-seeded Simona Halep 6-3, 6-4 to reach Sunday’s final for the first time in eight appearances.
“I’ve been here so many times and finally I did it,” Radwanska said.
Flavia Pennetta defeated top-seeded Li Na 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, handing Li just her second loss of the year.
There were eight straight service breaks in the first set, which Li lost with her eighth double-fault. Pennette broke Li twice in the second set, and she closed out the win with a backhand down the line.
Li, the Australian Open champion, fell to 17-2 on the year. She was playing her first major tournament as a No. 1 seed.
In the other semifinal, Halep had Radwanska on the run most of the match, but Radwanska was up to the challenge, continually chasing down balls and making some well-placed returns. Radwanska was unable to convert on her first two match points on Halep’s serve in the ninth game. Radwanska’s swinging forehand volley set up her third in the next game and she won on Halep’s backhand that went wide.
Halep, who had 21 winners, is projected to move up two spots to a career-best No. 5 in the world in Monday’s rankings, the highest ever by a Romanian woman.