INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Novak Djokovic is again in the semifinals, quite possibly on a collision course to defend his title once more in a final with Rafael Nadal, the man whose title he took in a three-set final last year. As tantalizing as it may be to look forward to that Australian Open rematch, Djokovic by himself over the past few days has given the public plenty to watch.
On Thursday, Djokovic beat world No. 12 Nicolas Almagro by a seemingly uneventful scoreline, 6-3, 6-4, but Almagro proved quite the tough out. He hit big serves, topping out at 135 mph. He might have the most offensive-minded one-handed backhand in the game, a weapon Djokovic was forced to respect throughout the afternoon.
What Djokovic displayed, however, was a reservoir of toughness -- something we used to associate with only Nadal or Roger Federer. The looming specter of Djokovic is so immense, his shadow so ominous to opponents, that the final score can often undermine the key examples of doggedness that have made the difference in several matches.
Toughness has become his staple. If there is a feeling that the 41-0 start to last year, the dominance over Nadal with seven straight victories, the winning of three majors in 2011 and the establishment of himself as the undeniable best player in the game has come without suspense, the truth is quite different.
"You have to try and hold your nerves at the important moments, especially when you're playing a top-10 player," Djokovic said. "And if you're playing the world's top players, you know you obviously feel a little bit more pressure than in the opening rounds."
The end of the first set Thursday provided a glimpse into what has separated Djokovic from his peers. Serving with a 3-1 lead, Djokovic was broken, putting Almagro back on serve. Djokovic didn't only immediately break back to go up 4-2, but then held at love in his service game to take a 5-2 lead. Turning a potential 3-3 first set into a 5-2 lead represented the kind of momentum shift Djokovic has been forcing for the last year.
The truth is that in a handful of moments over the course of the year, it was Djokovic who did not blink. In the final at Indian Wells last year against Nadal, Djokovic lost the first set. He did the same days later in Miami, when Nadal won the first set in the final and yet Djokovic beat him in a third-set tiebreaker to win the title. There was, most famously, the all-in forehand return against Federer staring down double-match point at the U.S. Open last year, and, in the 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final, a missed backhand by Nadal that would've put Djokovic a point away from 5-2 down.
These moments define the Djokovic transformation.
A day earlier, David Nalbandian was broken down a set serving at 4-4 by world No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, allowing Tsonga to serve for the match. In his previous service game, Tsonga couldn't convert a first serve and was broken. Now, unhinged, Tsonga blasted a 137-mph first serve ace down the middle, then a 125-mph first serve to Nalbandian's backhand that he followed up with a forehand winner to go up 30-0, two points from the quarterfinals.
But then, where Djokovic has learned to rise, Tsonga fell, sailing an easy volley long after a blistering 134-mph serve, tossing a forehand into the net and sailing another on match point. After failing to convert, Tsonga went on to lose that game, and two more, and then was rushed out of town in a listless third set, 6-3.
There was a time when Djokovic might have been the one to crumble as Tsonga did on Wednesday. Instead, he has become the game's most dangerous boa constrictor, taking everything Almagro could throw at him before inexorably squeezing the fight out of the Spaniard. In the second, Djokovic lost a marathon game at 3-3 on Almagro's serve, then lost a 40-0 lead on his serve at 3-4 but not only held on to win, but won the final three games of the set, serving the match out at love.
"Today, I had a powerful ball-striker on the opposite side of the net. He's very solid from groundstrokes and has a powerful serve, but I knew that he's inconsistent with that, so I just needed to hang in there, which I did."