Novak Djokovic ousted Roger Federer, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, to advance to Sunday's… (Jeff Gross / Getty Images )
The left-hander with the bulletproof game and the new gunslinger in town will play in Sunday's men's singles final at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
It will be No. 1 versus No. 2, as tennis fans here have been coveting for the last several years. But the names that go with the numbers won't exactly be what they wanted, and clearly rooted for Saturday afternoon in the packed 16,100-seat stadium at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
They got only half their wish.
No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who plays like he is trying to wear out the energizer bunny, defeated Juan Martin del Potro, 6-4, 6-4. That set the stage for the duel in the desert that has never happened, the Nadal-Roger Federer matchup that has captivated the world in places such as Melbourne, Paris and Wimbledon, England.
But never in Indian Wells, Calif., and now, probably never here at all.
In the second semifinal, Federer was dispatched by Serbian star Novak Djokovic, and the 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory further confirmed that Djokovic has moved past Federer in men's tennis. Numerical measurements confirm it. Djokovic entered the match No. 3, Federer No. 2. On Monday, when tennis computers make their calculations official, Djokovic will be No. 2, Federer No. 3.
There is no question that Federer's long reign at the top of the tennis rankings, and his dramatic matches against Nadal, have given both men the exposure to make them the most popular players in the game. Federer fans are zealous about their Swiss star, Nadal fans the same about their Spanish hero. Still, each group of followers has grudging respect for the other's hero.
And so, it was no surprise when Federer told a TV interviewer as he took the court to play Djokovic that Nadal's victory had been "inspirational," and he hoped to draw from that.
But against Djokovic, who at 23 is six years younger and who had beaten him at last year's U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open, Federer needed more than inspiration. He needed masterful tennis shots, something that was his trademark as he placed himself on a tennis pedestal with 16 major titles, most ever in men's tennis.
But Saturday, against a more mature, confident Djokovic, the artist Federer continued his recent trend of emulating Picasso for three shots and Ralph the house painter for the next two.
The end for Federer — maybe for one last shot at another title here, where he has won three — effectively arrived at 3:32 p.m., 1 hour 58 minutes into the match. He had fought back from 2-0 down to 2-2 in the final set, gotten to 40-15 on his serve . . . and then let Djokovic reel off 11 straight points, a run that left Federer trailing, 2-4, and down love-40 on his serve.
Now, , after saving two of those three break points, Federer fed Djokovic a short ball and could only watch as his young opponent hit a perfect topspin forehand just out of reach in his forehand corner for a two-break, 5-2 lead. It was effectively the end, possibly for future hardware at Indian Wells. Federer's runner-up finish with Stanislas Wawrinka in men's doubles later in the day won't carry the same sizzle.
After Djokovic served it out, he turned toward his team in the stands and pounded on his chest. Federer quickly gathered his equipment and departed. The body language said as much as the scoreboard.
"Right now," said Djokovic, whose victory was his 19th in a row, going back to last season's Davis Cup victory by Serbia, "I kind of have more self-belief when I step on the court against him. Before, it was, you know, let's hope I can play well."
Now, Djokovic goes out with full knowledge that he not only can win, but is probably the favorite against Federer. Just three weeks earlier, he'd beaten Federer in the final at Dubai, 6-3, 6-3. There was a time when nobody beat Federer, 6-3, 6-3. But now, as one recent tennis magazine headline said, this Serbian star is "No Djok."
With different spelling, that certainly could apply to Nadal.
He dug himself a 1-4 hole against the huge-hitting, 6-foot-6 Argentine, and few in the place actually thought he was in deep trouble. That's because Nadal is the un-squashable bug. When he is healthy and firing on all cylinders, which is almost always, beating him is like trying to lasso a ground squirrel or swat a fly with a pencil.
Nadal got from 1-4 to 4-4 in a blink, then broke Del Potro's huge serve by returning one 133-mph delivery so effectively that a surprised Del Potro responded by netting his answer.
Soon, the second set became a study in puppetry, and Nadal was pulling all the strings. Deep shots to Del Potro's right, then left, then right. As long as Del Potro's legs were, they couldn't keep up.
Quickly, it was 2-2 and time for Nadal to break serve and further destroy Del Potro's confidence. At 30-40, Del Potro made a perfect approach shot, deep and wide to Nadal's backhand side. Few mortals would have even gotten near the shot. Nadal got there, stretched out with his two-handed backhand slapped a winner past the huge wingspan of Del Potro.
Asked later how many players would have made that shot, a glum Del Potro said, "Not many."
Nadal and Djokovic play Sunday at 1 p.m., after the women's final between No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and surprise finalist Marion Bartoli.
Nadal has a 16-7 lead against Djokovic, including victories in all five Grand Slam matches they have had, as well as the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics. He has also played Djokovic twice at Indian Wells and won both.
But then, as the headline said, right now, Novak is No Djok.