INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- On the final weekend of the BNP Paribas Open, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are the only top-10 players remaining in the men's draw. Rafael Nadal is gone, courtesy of the wonderfully eclectic Alexandr Dolgopolov. Thanks to Milos Raonic, the ill-tempered, foul-mouthed Andy Murray is gone, too.
Thursday's quarterfinals represented yet another glimpse of the future, with a couple of legendary mainstays sharing the second-week order of play with an increasingly confident next generation, and either Dolgopolov would advance to his first Masters 1000 semifinal or Raonic would reach his second.
Dolgopolov finished Raonic in straight sets, a pedestrian-looking 6-3, 6-4 score line that did no justice to the actual accomplishment. For his maiden semifinal, Dolgopolov will play Federer, who doused Kevin Anderson in straights.
When he was out seven months with a knee injury, the absence of Nadal was obvious, for there are few showstoppers in the game that blended charisma, likability, talent and shot-making quite like Nadal. Gael Monfils was one, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga another.
Dolgopolov, the delicate-looking Ukrainian who is listed at 157 pounds but routinely drops 130-mph serves and huge, sizzling forehands thanks to the massive racket-head speed he generates, he is one more, and his fast start to 2014 should be welcomed by anyone who likes a little star-power along with their victories.
Dolgopolov, however, is an original on the tour, the antidote for anyone who believes the game has become too homogenized by interminable baseline rallies. Dolgopolov never hits the same shot twice. No two shots ever use the same footwork.
Dolgopolov entered 2014 with a 3-26 versus top 10 players but has beaten David Ferrer and Nadal this year. He has owned a penchant for producing breathtaking moments of shot-making followed by breathtakingly confounding moments of fatal shot selection. He plays with the conviction that every shot, any shot in his considerable arsenal is the correct choice at any time. When Nadal beat him 6-3, 6-2 here in 2012, he lauded Dologpolov's creativity and talent but also said that he relied on unpredictability and volatile risk that have hurt the Ukrainian in the past.
In other words, Dolgopolov could always be counted on to make the wrong shot, for his opponent anyway, at just the right time.
Dolgopolov has been ranked as high as 13th in January 2012, but last October, he fell to No. 59. "He's already been higher up in the rankings," Federer said of Dolgopolov. "I was surprised he dropped as low as he did. It's nice for me to see he's working his way back."
This year, Dolgopolov has been as dangerous as he is fun, and though there was still plenty of offensive magic, he broke Raonic's will with a stunning display of returning, the key sequence beginning in the third game of the second set after he had won the first 6-3.
Trailing 2-0 on Raonic's massive serve, Dolgopolov had carved out a 15-40 lead only to lose the game for 3-0. With Raonic serving at 3-1, Dolgopolov created more opportunity at 0-40 and broke on his fifth break opportunity, the last returning a 141 mph serve not with a block or chip, but a short full swing that handcuffed Raonic.
"I was quite fast today. I was really happy with that," Dolgopolov said. "And I was able to get more returns than usually you can against him. He serves really big and I knew I had to do that."
The returning continued, Dolgopolov had won five straight games for a 5-3 lead and served out the match at 5-4.
"He made me think more than most people can on my service games," Raonic said.
Obviously the career of Raonic is just getting started, but over the past five years, it has gotten increasingly easier to dismiss the championship validity of "big-man tennis." With the exception of 6-foot-7 Juan Martin del Potro, only 6-foot-8 Jerzy Janowicz has broken through to a Grand Slam semifinal, which he did at Wimbledon last year. Without del Potro and his 2009 US Open title, the big-man's game of Raonic, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey and Ivo Karlovic has been scary but beatable, high on aces, low on hardware.
Federer returns to the top five
Federer, the dismissed legend except for the memories and the sporadic, intermittent moments from Mount Olympus, may not be such an afterthought after all. He fought off Anderson, the man who vanquished Stanislas Wawrinka in a tight first set and demolished him in the second. Anderson held for 5-5 and then lost seven straight games and the match, 7-5, 6-1.
The win puts Federer back in the top five, and suddenly, as injuries (Nadal's back, Murray's back, del Potro's wrists) and ineffectiveness (Tsonga will fall out of the top 10) reshape the top of the men's game, maybe it isn't so far-fetched that Federer could win another major. He beat Tsonga and Murray in Melbourne and Djokovic in Dubai and is in great position here to win not just the singles, but the doubles as well, which he's playing with Wawrinka. Federer plays Dolgopolov, who will try to what only del Potro (US Open 2009) and Djokovic (US Open 2011) have done: beat Nadal and Federer in the same tournament. "I'm excited," Federer said. "I like to play against him. I've practiced with him a fair bit in Dubai this year, at the end of last season and in the buildup. He was there for a long time in Dubai. So was I.
"So we caught up and played some practice matches. It was really good fun. He was playing really well in practice. He really takes the ball early. He likes to take advantage of the fact that when there's a short ball he just smashes it, and he's got a great serve. Maybe the hard work is paying off right now."
Li in; Stephens out
The rematch of January's Australian Open final between top seed Li Na and Dominika Cibulkova produced 16 double faults and 32 break points combined. It was only slightly less ugly than the following women's quarterfinal match that saw Flavia Pennetta defeat American Sloane Stephens in three strange sets, the last occurring in a sudden windstorm that turned the final games into a virtual practice session with neither player trying to hit the ball with any authority.
Still, Pennetta led 5-4 in the second, but before serving for the match, she called for her coach, got a pep talk and lost the next three games and the set. The disastrous result prompted Federer after his match to hilariously reiterate his disdain for on-court coaching and desire for it never to infect the men's game.
"I just think tennis is one of those sports where it's cool to figure it out yourself. You can look over to your coach for comfort or support, but other than that, I think tennis is one of those unique sports where you don't get coaching." Meanwhile, Stephens, whose coach is Paul Annacone, Federer's former coach, enjoyed a quarterfinal run, which was the best of her career here. She led 3-0 in the third and lost six of the final seven games -- and the match.
Cibulkova is one of the more fun players to watch on the WTA tour. She hits the ball with nonstop ferocity, a true baseliner for whom "variety" is a magazine. She does not serve and volley. She comes to the net only on federal holidays. Changing the pace of the rally seems as offensive to her as putting ketchup on eggs.
When she is on, as she was in the second set, blasting winners and clipping lines, she is a force. When she loses her balance as she did in missing two break points early that would have given her a lead, she did not recover at 3-3 and lost the match quickly.
In a sense, Maria Sharapova, Stephens and Cibulkova all employ the same strategy: Blast through any dilemma with forehand after forehand. Against most players, Sharapova can get away with it. Against an increasing number, so can Cibulkova.
Stephens, however, cannot. The difference is consistency, footwork and conviction. Stephens plays as if the white line of the baseline is an invisible fence and she will be electrocuted if she crosses it. The result is her attempt to hit winners from behind the baseline without stepping forward into the court. The result is also a handful of frighteningly good winners that remind everyone of her scary talent level.
Throughout a match, though, the secondary result is too many unforced errors and too little margin.