Novak Djokovic claimed his 550th win at the BNP Paribas Open, defeating Victor Hanescu in straight sets to set up a third-round meeting with John Isner while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga joined Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro on the list of high-profile casualties in the bottom half of the men’s draw.
Djokovic looked out of sorts in the first set against world no. 87 Hanescu and had to save two set points on his own serve at 5-6 as Hanescu cracked a forehand return winner off a second serve and a lucky netcord helped the Romanian edge a listless point from the world no. 2 to put him down 15-40. Two big serves came to Djokovic’s aid and he held to force a tiebreak in which he elevated his level, taking a 3-1 lead as Hanescu put a backhand drop shot into the net to end a 17-shot rally.
It proved to be decisive as Djokovic elevated his level in the second set for a 7-6(1), 6-2 win, finishing with 20 winners for 24 unforced errors to set up a meeting with Alejandro Gonzalez in the third round.
‘It's one of those days where you get to serve well and everything else is just kind of trying to find the way to play the right shots at the right time,’ said Djokovic. ‘I didn't make any returns in in the first set. Second set I also struggled with the return, which is one of my better sides in the game generally speaking.
‘It's the first match and it takes a little bit of time to get used to the center court. I haven't played on it this year.’
Djokovic’s half of the draw opened up enormously after Juan Martin del Potro, his projected quarterfinal opponent, was forced to withdraw due to ongoing left-wrist problems and Dubai finalist Tomas Berdych was upended in three sets by Roberto Bautista Agut. It got even more open when ninth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga fell to compatriot Julien Benneteau 4-6, 4-6 on Sunday. Eight seed Richard Gasquet, who progressed when Teymuraz Gabashvili retired trailing 0-6, 0-2 due to illness, is now the highest seed Djokovic can face before the final.
Tsonga reached the final in Marseille, losing to Ernests Gulbis, but that has been the high point of a 2014 season which has seen the French player looking listless and strategically uncertain more often than not, and those qualities were on display in his loss to Benneteau today. Benneteau will face Masters 1000 Series debutant Dominic Thiem, the 20-year-old Austrian qualifier who is beginning to turn heads on the ATP World Tour. Thiem recovered from a 0-3 deficit to beat twenty-first seed Gilles Simon 7-6(5), 6-2.
Among the seeds that did survive, John Isner posted a 7-6(5), 6-3 win over former world no. 3 to reach the third round. It’s a good result for Isner after an ankle injury which disrupted the first two months of the season. ‘It's a situation that's very good for me,’ Isner, who won the title in Auckland in January, said. ‘In the US, [a] hard court that bounces high and pretty slow, and have the fans on my side, I can't ask for anything more. All the surroundings bode extremely well for me. So I'm in a good place.’
The last American standing in the Californian desert, Isner was naturally asked about the state of American men’s tennis. ‘I guess yesterday wasn't a great day for our American men,’ Isner acknowledged. ‘But, you know, selfishly, I'm just worried about myself, really. I certainly want all those guys to do well. But at the same time, it's not my concern at all. My concern is myself and just trying to keep moving forward and keep getting better and get back to where I want to be.’
Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov will meet for the third time in a month in the third round. Gulbis and Dimitrov have been two of the form players so far in 2014, as Gulbis reached the semifinals in Rotterdam and lifted the trophy in Marseille while Dimitrov reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open and won the 500 tournament in Acapulco. Gulbis won 100% of his first-serve points in a 6-3, 6-3 defeat of Portugal’s Joao Sousa, while Dimitrov recovered from an early break and displayed some exhibition-quality tennis in a 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Robin Haase.
Gulbis won their meeting in Rotterdam and Dimitrov triumphed in Acapulco, so the series in what is fast developing into a fascinating rivalry between two of the young talents of the game is poised at 1-1 coming into their Indian Wells third-round encounter.
Another player whose form has highlighted the opening months of the 2014 season, Marin Cilic, joined Djokovic, Isner, Gulbis and Dimitrov in the third round with a 6-2, 6-2 defeat of Sao Paulo finalist Paolo Lorenzi. Cilic will play Tommy Robredo after the sixteenth seed beat Marinko Matosevic in three sets, but should be confident after winning titles in Zagreb and Delray Beach and reaching the final in Rotterdam. Cilic currently leads the ATP World Tour in wins for the 2014 season.
‘With these wins it helped me to put the game in the right direction, what to do in certain moments, how to deal with different kind of situations,’ Cilic said. ‘My form is good and I'm hitting the ball really well.’
Coach Goran Ivanisevic added, ‘I’d be surprised if he is not in the top ten very soon.’
Other seeds to fall were Philipp Kohlschreiber, losing to Yen-Hsun Lu who goes on to face Isner in a rematch of the Auckland final; Florian Mayer, who retired against Jarkko Nieminen due to a leg injury; and Vasek Pospisil, recovering from a back injury, who won just two games against Mikhail Kukushkin.