Roger Federer prepares to return a backhanded shot against Kevin Anderson… (Jeff Gross / Getty Images )
A strange desert wind blew through Indian Wells and its Taj Mahal tennis facility in late afternoon Thursday, turning a women's quarterfinal into Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey.
But it disappeared in time for the appearance of the evening's royalty, the Swiss king, Roger Federer.
He was the feature of the day, the 7 p.m. match, the one where the ticket scalpers made their hay for the day. His name is legendary in tennis. Most legends build with time, after retirement, when history can be embellished a bit and reality can be retouched.
But Federer, with a record 17 Grand Slam tournament titles to his name, is still playing. He is 32 and has answered the question about retirement so many times that he just puts it on autopilot now.
The magic wand he played with for so long, that seemed to be missing the last few years, now seems to have new batteries.
The quirky wind apparently knew when it was time to exit. Kevin Anderson, Federer's 6-foot-8 South African opponent in the quarterfinals of this BNP Paribas Open, probably didn't want to think about exits. He probably also knew, as everybody here having watched the way Federer is playing, that his was inevitable.
And so, when he lasted 1 hour 9 minutes, and pushed the Swiss Majesty to a 5-7 first set in Federer's 7-5, 6-1 victory, Anderson couldn't feel too badly about his effort.
At his best, Federer is unbelievable. Thursday night, he was better than that.
Baseball has an expression about its superstars. It calls them five-tool players. They are those who can hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field.
In tennis, you have to be able to serve, return, rally from the baseline and play the net. Those are four tools. Thursday night, Federer added four more by doing each with success, and in perfectly timed situations: Swinging volleys, drop shots, topspin lobs and serve-and-volley.
He is Roger Federer, tennis' eight-tool player.
OK, maybe nine.
In the 12th game of the first set, when Federer broke serve to take it, he got to love-30 with a jumping overhead.
He broke the huge-serving Anderson the first two times he faced his serve in the second set and was ahead, 5-0, in 17 minutes. Match point was the predictable and dependable slice serve on the middle line at 40-love that Anderson could reach, but not return.
Federer is now in his eighth semifinal at Indian Wells, where he has won four times, most recently in 2012.
"Last year was a little difficult," said Federer, who had a bad back much of the time. "I have more confidence out there now, and last year, that wasn't always the case.
"When I feel good again, this is what I expect of myself."
Several hours before his match, he sat in the players' dining area and watched the strange dust and wind swirling around.
Li makes semifinal
China's Li Na, the current Australian Open champion, made it to the women's semifinals by getting past the same opponent she did in the Aussie final. This time, she yielded a set to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, but won, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.
That put Li into Friday's late-night semifinal match against Flavia Pennetta of Italy, who survived her quarterfinal test against 20-year-old U.S. rising star Sloane Stephens.
Pennetta won the first set, 6-4; Stephens the second, 7-5, and then winds and swirling dust descended on the main stadium and turned the match into a survival circus.
Pennetta termed the final set a "disaster" for both players, and Stephens agreed.
Stephens led the final set, 3-0, and then things really got weird. She lost the next three games. Then, serving at 4-all, she was broken at love.
As the winds caused each player to hit some of the strangest shots seen in years here, and push in 60-mph serves just to get the ball in play, Pennetta quickly got to match point at 40-love, as Stephens made three errors.
But it took the Italian veteran until the fifth match point to finally win, when either Stephens, or the wind, pushed a backhand wide.
The match took 2 hours 26 minutes.
Stephens was asked later whether she would practice in wind like this in the future to get ready for the next similar situation. She said, "We'll never play in wind like this again," and added, "I come from L.A. We don't have wind."
The evening men's doubles semifinal was a rare showcase for U.S. tennis, matching the best doubles team of all time, Mike and Bob Bryan, against two of the top U.S. singles players, John Isner and Sam Querrey.
Isner and Querrey stole the first set in a tiebreaker, 7-4, but the Bryans won the second, 6-1, and then the super tiebreaker, 10-7.