Three times in the past five years Andy Roddick has made it to the semifinals of this ATP Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells – and no further.
But the veteran, never-say-die American broke through that invisible barrier Saturday with a hard-earned victory over the Swedish powerhouse Robin Soderling, who had ripped through Andy Murray's game on Friday. The score was 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, and it was actually closer than that. Both players won 79 points.
It was Roddick's first victory over Soderling in three attempts, and he was jubilant afterward.
"I was a little bit banged up after San Jose/Memphis, and I didn't feel I was playing that well," he said. "But I kind of went home and got back to neutral and put in some work. For a bigger result to come this week – I think I needed it. I think it was good timing, and I'd love to see it go one further."
And, on paper at least, Roddick's chances of getting his hands on his fifth Masters Series title – and his first since Cincinnati in 2006 – look a little brighter following the unexpected result from the day's first semifinal at this BNP Paribas Open, when Ivan Ljubicic outplayed the defending champion Rafael Nadal, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6.
It was a magnificent performance from the Croat, who turned 31 this week and is now playing the kind of tennis that took him to No. 3 in the world in May 2006. After fighting his way back into the match with some great serving and solid returns, Ljubicic reserved his best till last as he swept through the tiebreak, 7-1, going ahead 2-1 with a 138 mph ace and grabbing the first mini-break with a terrific backhand winner.
Ljubicic is nothing if not a thoughtful player, and it is always good listening to him dissect a match afterward.
"I was thinking yesterday about how to use my serve," he said. "I was not going for the biggest (first) serves all the time. I knew that slow serve to his backhand would give him a lot of trouble. But on second serve, yeah, I had to go for it really aggressively because if I just put it in the box, he just rips it and you are on the back foot right from the beginning."
If the Croat's 17 aces played a big part in his victory, it was that second serve – which kicked and swerved high above Nadal's head – that probably had the decisive effect on the match.
Ljubicic felt getting the ball high was the key but was aware of what Nadal can do to your game if you are not tactically prepared. "His kind of tennis is taking one shot away from me," he explained. "It is the backhand slice. I can't use it against him. He's just going all over you if you slice it."
Probably the most satisfying aspect of this exceptional result for Ljubicic was the fact that Nadal did not play badly and actually won more points overall – 98-92. But Ljubicic is a canny customer and knew when to turn the screw. Big points win tennis matches, and Ljubicic came up with them today.
Roddick, in some ways, had a rockier ride against Soderling because he gave away service breaks early in both the second and third sets. "I knew I was returning real well, so I thought this might be the rare occasion when that would be the thing that won it for me. I don't normally need two breaks to win a set but today I did."
The first lapse cost him because the French Open finalist came roaring back into the match with some of those howitzer returns off both flanks that had undone Murray.
But Roddick kept battering away with his own heavily top spun groundies and, in the sixth game of the final set, forced three errors out of his opponent – two backhands long and one forehand wide. They proved fatal for the Swedish cause.
But it is no longer accurate to talk about Roddick as just a battering ram on a tennis court. That magnificent Wimbledon final against Roger Federer last year elevated him in the eyes of many observers and rightly so.
He can do more things than hit a hard ball now, and we saw several instances of that Saturday. And the point at 30-15 when he was serving for the match epitomized it. Moving forward to slip a lovely backhand up the line, Roddick then undercut the return with an angled backhand volley that brought gasps of appreciation from the crowd. It was a great way to reach double match point.