Saturday March 17th, 2012

John Isner made his second straight Masters 1000 semifinal at Indian Wells. (Getty Images)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Carefully emptying out my virus-free notebook from the week at the BNP Paribas Open, where John Isner is still standing, the Germans show no sign of retreat, and Michael Llodra’s outburst is still the talk of the press room.

The Big Three… and John: It’s difficult to look at the men’s semifinal lineup at Indian Wells and not do a quick double-take. We’ve set aside use of the always controversial “Big Four” label this week after Andy Murray crashed out to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round, and Isner stepped into the void to work through his wide-open quarter to make his second straight Masters 1000 semifinal. Isner hasn’t had to beat anyone ranked higher than him to get here, but that’s not a criticism because the opposite holds true as well: He hasn’t lost to anyone ranked below him. That’s the key to being a top 10 player, winning the matches you’re supposed to win to earn the chance to challenge the men at the top. His efforts this week have earned him a shot at Novak Djokovic, who has had a good tournament, though not a great one. The key matchup will be Isner’s serve vs. Djokovic’s return, which is the best in the game right now.

“His anticipation, his hands, everything, it’s just world-class,” Isner said. “I’m gonna have to serve well, hit my spots, and have to serve smart. After that, I’m going to have to back it up with some very good shots, especially on my forehand.”

It’s a simple game plan. We’ll see if he can execute it on Saturday.

The Germans keep coming: Angelique Kerber’s game is a tough one to understand. It’s not pretty in the least. She doesn’t get full extension on either her forehand or backhand and it always looks like she’s off-balance and snatching at the ball. At 5’8” she doesn’t have the overwhelming power of some of her countrywomen, nor does she look like she has the foot speed to defend. But the 24-year-old from Bremen, Germany, has found a way to make it all work for her and I find it fascinating to watch. She’ll crack the top 15 on Monday and she’s now made the semifinals of seven of her last 12 events, including the U.S. Open semifinals and most recently a title in Paris, where she beat Maria Sharapova and Marion Bartoli along the way.

One factor that seems to weigh heavily in her favor is the fact that she’s one of only two left-handers in the top 20 (the other: Petra Kvitova). After losing to Kerber in the quarterfinals, Li Na looked absolutely perplexed by the German’s game. Li struggled with the lefty-spin and found Kerber’s side to side defense tough to break down. The other X-Factor for Kerber: she’s a fighter. She saved three match points in both her third- and fourth-round matches to come back and win. On a Tour where closing out matches seems to leave players frozen, Kerber’s comeback spirit may just be the thing that sets her apart.

America: Where hindrance rules: In his third-round loss to Matthew Ebden, Mardy Fish hit a drop shot that he thought was a pure winner and yelled "Come On!" well before Ebden was able to get his racket on the ball. The umpire invoked the now-famous hindrance rule and awarded Ebden the point. "Do you know where you are right now?" a frustrated Fish asked the umpire. Yes, Mardy, we're in America, where the hindrance rule is the new black.

It was invoked again during Maria Sharapova's quarterfinal match against Maria Kirilenko, when Kirilenko tapped her racket three times against the court during the rally. It led to a great quote from Sharapova afterwards. "It's one thing if you do it once, but I think she did it three or four times. That's a whole other story. It's not like a hockey puck or something. She forgot, I think, the sport." Funny, considering Kirilenko is dating Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin.

It was the right call in both cases and it makes you wonder if umpires will soon become so comfortable with the rule as to invoke it to curb grunting. How more distracting could Kirilenko's racket tap be than Sharapova's or Victoria Azarenka's wails?

Michael Llodra's apology trail: It must frustrate Llodra and the ATP to no end that a French-speaking journalist just happened to be sitting on an outer court when he decided to call an Asian-American fan a "f***ing Chinese". That actually might explain (emphasis on "might") why Llodra, on his long and winding apology trail, has taken so many missteps. First he complained that the fine was too much and said he didn't understand what he did wrong, then he told Chinese reporters that he wasn't racist and would sleep with a Chinese woman, then he refused the tournament's request to call the fan to apologize, then he posted an "apology" on his official website (translation here).

Now, finally, the fan has told that she has received a handwritten letter of apology from Llodra with an included a Lacoste shirt. Needless to say, I don't think she'll be wearing that shirt to her next Michael Llodra Fan Club meeting.

Meanwhile, the ATP, which initially issued a paltry $2,500 fine after an investigation that did not include contacting the fan directly, now says they're continuing the investigation and the fine may go higher. It seems to me that neither Llodra nor the ATP thought this incident would blow up the way that it did and maybe that's the problem. Whether this was a five-minute expletive laden rant or a throwaway jab in the heat of competition, the Tour should have acted quickly and decisively to ensure fans that it took these sorts of incidents seriously. Miscellany: After all the talk about time violations and shot clocks during the first week of the tournament, Rafael Nadal got a time violation in his third-round match. ... Victoria Azarenka has been parading a different Nike T-shirt at each press conference. The two best ones so far, "Unstoppable skills" and "Best is Best". ... Maria Sharapova has finished reading George Orwell's "1984" and she wasn't impressed, describing it as "rough and depressing". ... Credit to David Nalbandian, who was given a wildcard into the tournament to make the quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. ... More and more I'm buying into Christina McHale. The Jersey Girl is gradually improving and it's hard not to be impressed by her fight.

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