The big boys came out to play Monday at Indian Wells. In a shocking development, the biggest left early.
Rafael Nadal, ranked No.1, seeded No. 1, winner here last year, usually close to unbeatable on the slower hard courts of this BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, went out at the hands of an unheralded Ukrainian, Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Nadal was to be the grand finale on a day when the male stars came out. They packed the house in the 16,100-seat Indian Wells Tennis Garden Stadium 1. They were everywhere, well up into the high seats, where you go only if you have Himalayan hiking experience. Tournament officials might consider offering oxygen tanks.
Didn't matter. They were there to see their "Rafa," after a day of seeing some of his toughest competitors. They certainly were not there to see him lose in the third round.
But the 25-year-old Dolgopolov, who has never been further than a Grand Slam quarterfinal (once), and who had a 24-27 record on the ATP Tour last year, served big and stayed with Nadal's power for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) stunner. When it was over, he had won them over and they cheered heartily.
Match point was a startling moment that could have left a bad taste. Serving at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, Dolgopolov cranked a 120-mph serve down the middle. It looked like an ace, the linespeople called it that, and Nadal, out of desperation and with nothing to lose, challenged.
Dolgopolov leaned on the net and watched the Hawk-Eye picture on the big screen. He had just beaten a legend in the sport, or so he thought, but now he had to wait for technology.
Incredibly, the camera showed that the ball had been out. By a fraction. By the width of your fingernail. That's if you actually believe Hawk-Eye is always correct.
Somehow, Dolgopolov was able to gather himself, play a second serve, and get the final point. Then it became real.
Asked for his reaction to the Hawk-Eye reversal, Dolgopolov said, "I thought, you've got to be kidding me.
"I knew it was close. I didn't raise my arms. I knew he would challenge. Then, I just got back to the service line and served quick, before I could think about it."
The unheralded player from the country under political siege had done it.
"It's a moment for the people," he said. "A good result like that will make some people happy."
Nadal was his usual realistic self afterward. He summed it all up by saying he cannot be a true champion unless he plays at a higher level than he just had.
It was a cloudless day at the BNP Paribas Open, temperatures in the mid-80s. The lead-up of sorting through the survival of qualifiers and wild cards on the first four days was finished.
Novak Djokovic, No. 2 and resting comfortably on the less challenging side of the draw, had gotten through his match Sunday night.
That left a kind of fab four of tennis to entertain the huge Monday crowd in the desert.
The grand finale was to be Spain's own Rock of Gibraltar, Nadal.
He was seeded No. 1 here, with Wawrinka No. 3, Murray No. 5 and Federer No. 7. Fourth-seeded Tomas Berdych had already been an upset victim and No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro had pulled out with a wrist injury.
A ticket to either Stadium 1 or 2 was like gold.
Federer was Federer. He may be 32 and may have slipped in recent years from the form that made him winner of more major titles (17) than any other male player. But he remains the Muhammad Ali of tennis. On the court, he floats like a butterfly. When his shots connect, they sting like a bee.
Monday, he faced a big serving Russian, Dmitry Tursunov, who can be trouble for Federer. He was.
It took Federer two tiebreakers to advance, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (2). Afterward, he said he was pleased with his poise, especially when he was broken while serving for the first set at 5-4.
"I felt like I was calm," he said. "OK, got broken. Still managed to stay calm."
Murray, a couple of hundred yards away on Stadium 2, was taken to the wall by a young Czech player, Jiri Vesely. Murray ran off the first three games, then Vesely broke his serve and the struggle was on.
The pride of Scotland finally prevailed, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, when the game-but-nervous Vesely netted a half volley on Murray's third match point.
"The most important thing today was that I won," a rather dour-looking Murray said. "I wasn't happy with the way I played. . . . At no stage did either of us play well at the same time."
Wawrinka, the king of the play-till-the-lights-burn-out matches, dispatched Italy's Andreas Seppi, the No. 29 seed, in 57 minutes, 6-0, 6-2.
"Today was an amazing match," he said. "I can't complain. . . . For sure, my confidence is at the top."
And then came Nadal, starting in the new twilight allowed by daylight-saving time. For him, the main stadium was packed, even more than for Federer.
They wanted a show. They expected one. But not the one they got.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun