Giving tennis more than a shot

Indian Wells – High Quality Quarters (1)

Since the beginning of the BNP Paribas Open, we were treated to a lot of drama. From the now famous BNP Parasite (i.e. the gastro-intestinal virus that has been plaguing the tournament and made another victim yesterday – Mike Bryan, forcing the twins’ pull-out before their quarter-finals match, thus making it yet another year to their “Indian Wells curse”) to very dramatic matches, the tournament was a treat for fans, in both the bad and the good sense.


The round-of-16 brought us out fair share of drama and excitement, particularly in the bottom half of the draw, which gave us the most entertaining and nail-biting matches of the day. However, the top half is not to be neglected in that aspect either.


For length purposes, I will stop only on the top half for now, as they are the ones playing their quarter-finals matches today, but rest assured: the bottom half quarters are so exciting in perspective that they really deserve a post of their own.


First quarter: Novak Djokovic vs Nicolás Almagro

Those who thought that Nicolás Almagro would be in the quarter-finals of this Masters 1000 event, please raise your hand high. To be fair, I’m sure most of you will stay put. However, that’s what happened and I cannot say I’m sad about it, as Almagro is having a great start to 2012 and it’s about time that we see good results on hard courts for him in bigger events that are not the Australian Open.


He will, today, face World no 1 Novak Djokovic, but if both play in any way like they did yesterday, we’re in for a long and interesting battle, even though the defending champion starts with a huge advantage over his opponent. Let’s recap how they both reached that stage.


The fantastic day of Mr. Almagro

People made really much more fuss over the “handshake – no handshake” issue that would come at the end of the match opposing no 12 Nicolás Almagro and no 7 Tomas Berdych than about the match itself. After all, who has forgotten the Australian Open events? However, it was doing a great injustice to what promised to be a very tight matchup, especially if the match were to be as tight as their Melbourne encounter had been.


However, a great encounter, we did not have.


Nicolás Almagro played one of his best matches this season to defeat Tomas Berdych in a non-equivocal manner (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

Tomas Berdych was obviously in “one of those days”. In other words, the Czech, not known for his consistency, was having a particularly horrid day, way below par. Was it simply a bad day or was he yet another victim of the GI virus? Hard to tell. However, Berdych really did not play a good match, but was helped in that by the regularity and strength of his rival. For Nicolás Almagro was having a great, great day.


Almagro started the match strongly, despite the fact that he wasted several break opportunities at the start of it. Playing very aggressive tennis, his shots were painting the lines in an absolutely impressive fashion and he dominated the encounter from end to end, with a resounding 6-4 6-0 beatdown as a result.


It was the first time that Almagro defeated a top 10 player on a surface other than clay, and he did so in great fashion, fully deserving this quarter-final spot, his best Masters 1000 result since Montreal, last summer, where he was defeated in the quarter-finals by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.


It was a fabulous day for the Spaniard, and we can only hope that he will be in the same dispositions today. If he is, it would be quite a clash with the actual World no 1, one that would really be exciting to watch. Then again, I’m sure Almagro will put up a great fight and in this regard, strictly from this tournament point of view, he might have gotten to see a great example of not giving up by one of his countrymen.


Djokovic made to work

The match surely did not start the way Pablo Andújar would have wanted. Up 40-15 in his initial service game against Novak Djokovic, things quickly went downhill for the Spaniard, who was broken then, and actually did not win a single service game in that set, being bageled in 27 minutes by the Serb.


What started as a quick day at the office became a good task for World no 1 Novak Djokovic against Spaniard Pablo Andújar (Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Then came a drastic turnaround. Playing looser, more freely, Andújar became more and more dangerous as he not only held serve for the first time in the match, but managed to hold serve throughout all the set, serving better indeed, but also being much sharper in his play. As I said, playing looser. And it paid off, as Djokovic started having a little more problems on serve and even conceded a few break points to his opponent, on which he could not capitalize, sending his fate to the tiebreak.


And what a tiebreak! Andújar clearly showed that he would not bow down without a fight, which gave way to spectacular shots on both ends and a surprising taking of the second set by the Spaniard, on his third set point and a beautiful backhand winner that left a lot of us in absolute awe. The 45th player in the world had taken a set off the no 1, in style.


Pablo Andújar, by never giving up and fighting until the very end, taking a set in the process, showed that he has the game and the balls to compete against the best players in the world (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

However, Andújar tightened after accomplishing this feat, and the third set quickly went away from him, as he conceded two breaks, thus sealing Novak Djokovic’s win, 6-0 6-7(5) 6-2. This said, by his guts and his refusal to give up, Pablo Andújar showed that he made a lot of progress on hard courts, and that he has the balls to stand up even facing the best players in the world. The only thing I can hope for in his case is that he gains a little more confidence in key moments, and he could very well go further than the top 40 spot that awaits him next Monday (a career high).


As for Djokovic, he again did not serve his best and this could be key if Almagro wants to stand a chance against him in the quarter-finals today. But we know that the Serb is not no 1 in the world for nothing, and so he obviously starts with the biggest advantage in this matchup. Let’s see what Almagro can make of it and that hopefully, for the fans, it will not be a one-sided affair.


Second quarter: John Isner vs Gilles Simon

We expected Andy Murray to come out of this quarter, but the Brit lost in his very first match. Things then became very open in the top part of this quarter and this gave way to many a good match, with Ryan Harrison coming out of the mix to face no 13 Gilles Simon, who had his share of problems from the start, except in the last set of his match against Stanislas Wawrinka, as the Swiss was injured (he pulled out of Miami for that reason). 


In the other part of the quarter, with the early demise of World no 8 Mardy Fish to the hands of tricky qualifier Matthew Ebden, it was John Isner’s spot to take and, serving really big as is his trademark, he did so with great success. Nevertheless, the problems of Gilles Simon under pressure could very well be his downfall and he will start today’s match as the underdog and both Isner’s and Simon’s round-of-16 matches are clear indicators of who is the favourite in their upcoming match, not only their ranking.


Suffice of only a bad service game

Matthew Ebden, we know it, is a fighter and one who doesn’t give up easily. Coming all the way from the qualifications, he surprised everyone in the third round when he defeated Mardy Fish, thus logging his first top 10 win. But we knew it would take extreme consistency for the Aussie to get the better of John Isner.


Isner, for his part, has been serving big all through the tournament. Very big. Whatever little or big opportunity for his opponents were usually quickly erased by aces and unreturnables alike, which meant that each of his opponents had to be very cautious on their own serve if they wanted to only succeed in taking the sets to a little more open tiebreak.


John Isner has been serving big all week and is in a very good position to enter the top 10 for the first time in his career (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

Juan Mónaco has been caught in both sets he and Isner played. Yesterday, Matt Ebden has known the same fate. Like Mónaco before him, Ebden fought a valiant fight, but was given even less break opportunities to break that the Argentine was (only two for Ebden). Again, Isner saved them with immense serving.


However, it took only two bad service games from Ebden to see the match turn to his opponent’s favour, both near the end of each set. This time again, it’s John Isner who emerged the victor, 6-4 7-5, thus booking his quarter-final spot for the second time in his career (the first time was in Paris-Bercy last year, when he defeated David Ferrer before falling to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in semi-final).


Highest drama

It could have and should have been an easier match than it was for Gilles Simon. It could have and should have been a quick loss for Ryan Harrison. However, the former cracked under pressure at key moments and the latter fought an incredible fight to stay alive in the tournament, which gave one of the most dramatic matches of the tournament, a nearly three-hour battle finally won by the Frenchman, 7-6(0) 5-7 6-1.


At times aggressive, at times defensive, but always playing with fire, Gilles Simon again had issues closing out matters against Ryan Harrison, which gave way to a match of intense drama (Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The rallies were usually long and very disputed, neither player wanting to give the slightest advantage to his rival, rallies of very often over 20 shots each, one even reaching 36 shots in the second set. In all the sets, it was the more experienced Simon who took the advantage quickly.


However, just like in his previous matches, Simon cracked in the key moments of serving out both the first set and the match in the second. Both times, he was broken by an unrelenting Ryan Harrison, who took advantage of every little opportunity given by his rival (he even saved three match points). Except in those key points of the match, there weren’t that many.


If this tightening at the time of closing out only cost a set to Gilles Simon, it was a lot because of the inexperience of his rival, as in the next few months, I’m pretty sure that such a meeting would end up quite differently in the same circumstances. In the third set, it was following a disagreement with the chair umpire, Fergus Murphy, that Ryan Harrison completely lost his focus, which gave Simon the clear advantage in the rest of the set, that ended up being very quickly wrapped-up by the Frenchman.


Today, however, such tightness may likely prove fatal to Simon’s tournament, as he faces a much more experienced rival than Harrison, and one who serves much, much better. I think that, this time, he won’t escape and that John Isner will be the victor.


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