After a 2h50m match, DelPo came back from a set down to defeat world no. 1 Djokovic, 4-6 6-4 6-4.
In the final, he will face Rafael Nadal, who defeated Berdych in straight sets (6-4 7-5). Just like the Paris Masters last year, the Indian Wells final will feature two players ranked outside the top 4.
DelPo has done quite the job of shaking up the draw at IW this week, with his wins over no. 3 Murray and no. 1 Djokovic (both the reigning champions at the hard-court Slams). He also broke Novak’s 22-match winning streak. DelPo’s mental strength stood the test of Novak’s defensive abilities, as he came back from 0-3 down in the 3rd set to serve out the match 6-4.
The first set was closely and evenly fought, but DelPo took some time to settle into the match. He faced trouble holding for 4-4. In DelPo’s next service game, Novak stepped up the attack and broke DelPo for a 6-4 lead. DelPo was hanging with Novak, but could he keep up the competitive level?
After consecutive breaks of serve in the 2nd set, DelPo broke Novak with a BHDTL winner that was timed just so, after a long rally where DelPo mixed up his pace to gain time for his shots. He was up 2*-1 and celebrated with a loud “vamos.” Hawk-Eye stats showed he covered a 73m distance for that winner, while Novak covered 62m.
DelPo’s tactic of using the BH slice to buy time for hit his FH can be seen at the point he won to reach GP at 30-all, as he served to consolidate the break. He constructed beautiful points to consolidate for the first hold of the 2nd set, 3-1*. For much of the 2nd set, he showed great variety with his FH placement, mixing up the CC and DTL:
After an easy hold, DelPo then paced himself well in the rallies to wind up for his huge FHs. He showed clean ballstriking, changing the direction and pace to wind up for the emphatic FH winner. He quickly gained 2 BPs on Novak’s service game at 4-2*. He had the chance to break with a passing shot, but Novak showed great net coverage to save the 1st BP with a half-volley. On the next point, DelPo hit a short 2nd serve return to draw the CC BH reply from Novak, which DelPo used to torque his FHDTL winner to go up a double break.
However, he tightened up while serving for the set. Novak hit a wide FH winner to the deuce court to gain his 2nd BP of the game, and then hit a return winner to recover one of the breaks. DelPo thus faced his toughest test when he served for the 2nd set for the second time at 5*-4. He hit a BHDTL to gain 2 SPs and hit a CC FH winner that would have won him the set, except the linesman called it out and chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani quickly overruled. The point had to be replayed, but DelPo remained calm and served it out. He gave a huge roar and fistpump after taking the 2nd set.
DelPo was broken early in the 3rd set, as Novak pulled ahead for 3-0 lead. This is when DelPo showed great mental strength in clawing his back into the match. That he withstood the physical demands of rallying with Djokovic made it all the more impressive (including a 37-shot rally in 36 C heat). At 2-0 in the 3rd set, stats showed that each player had covered a distance of 2.2 km in the match, which is tough, given the sudden bursts of speed that tennis requires.
DelPo impressed with his tenacity as he played smart and gained 3 BPs at 1-3* in the 3rd to break back with a deep FH that forced a long return from Novak. The match was level again:
He then broke Novak’s serve to go up 5*-4, assuming the right mentality of going for his FH. While he missed chances to break when he mistimed his FHs, this aggressive mindset was absolutely the right play. The slice-FH combination he used to reach BP and break for 5*-4 were pretty stunning and he had the crowd on their feet when he broke. The TV camera followed a teenage-ish Argentine Boca Jrs. fan who was particularly thrilled.
He served for the match and won with an ace on MP. The two players shared a great hug at the net, and Novak was very classy in defeat (I’ve always felt Novak’s victory celebrations in the past were over-the-top, but the counterpoint that he is equally gracious in defeat proved just as true today):
Overall, it’s great to see that a change in DelPo’s game that was prompted by physical problems actually became a weapon for him. The slice has improved his ability to transition between defense and offense, as he can bide his time before unleashing his ground strokes, instead of going for broke at every point.
Photos & Presser Quotes:
The desert temperature reached 35 Celsius and DelPo was seen taking sips of water from the back of the court in between points:
Here’s a nice photo of DelPo hitting his FHDTL to go up a double break in the 2nd set. His grip allows him to straighten out his elbow as he makes contact with the ball:
In his previous day’s presser, DelPo had acknowledged that his increased use of the BH slice was due to the problems with his left wrist.
In his SF presser, DelPo said he plans to play more aggressively against Rafa tomorrow and that he will try to come to the net more often. Rafa is on a hot streak right now, but the Spaniard still does have a few issues with side-to-side movement after his comeback. The hope is DelPo can exploit this very minor flaw in Rafa’s game without getting passed at the net too often.
Looking Ahead to the DelPo-Rafa Final:
DelPo looks to win his first title on outdoor HCs since Feb. 2011 (Delray Beach) and his first career Masters title. This is DelPo’s 2nd final at the Masters level (he lost to Murray at Montreal in 2009), while Rafa will play his 32nd Masters final.
By now, it seems common news that DelPo had turned to the BH slice in order to avoid the pain in his left wrist. In his match against Novak, he missed quite a few opportunities to be aggressive with his BH, due to that problem. DelPo mentioned that he would play more aggressively against Rafa, especially because Rafa is a lefty, which makes the slice a more difficult shot to play.
In his return to HCs this year, Rafa seems to be hitting his FHs with more bite and he tends to hit flatter than Novak. DelPo plays well against flat power hitters, but the question is whether he can properly calibrate his game against a power baseliner like Rafa in time to establish control over the match.
Whatever the outcome of the Indian Wells final, the final result will be spun as a bit of a fairytale. For DelPo, this final is a hard-fought and fully-deserved chance to earn his first Masters shield. I know I may come across as too effusive in my praise of his week so far, but his comeback wins over Muzz and Novak were no small feat by any stretch of the imagination (DelPo now has 6 career wins over no. 1 players, with 3 wins over Fed, 2 over Novak and 1 over Rafa). As for Rafa, he is the 11-time GS champion who has come back impressively from a 7-month knee injury. Rafa’s route to the final included a rout of defending champion Fed and an in-form Berdy. There’s plenty at stake: DelPo is tantalizingly close to his first Masters title and a no. 6 ranking, while Rafa has the chance to make a big statement (while climbing up to the no. 4 ranking).
Those prone to uncharitable opinions will quickly point out that DelPo has reached a Masters final for the first time since his breakout year in 2009, while Rafa managed to reach a Masters final within the first three months of his comeback. Still, all of DelPo’s 3 career wins over Rafa have come on the big stage (2009 Miami QF, 2009 Montreal QF and 2009 USO SF). While the efforts DelPo expended in his last 2 matches may have exhausted his energy reserves, one can’t help but hope he can draw upon his adrenaline to tough out a win in the final.