INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Novak Djokovic eased past Julien Benneteau 6-1, 6-3 on Friday to advance to the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open. He will face John Isner, who is back in the top 10 after beating Ernests Gulbis 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to make his second semifinal here.
A top-five player has won 12 of the last 13 titles at this Masters 1000 tournament. Djokovic is the sole top-five survivor this year after Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych all were upset and David Ferrer pulled out with injury. Searching for his first title in 2014, Djokovic seems to have found his form back in the desert, where he has won two titles. One eyebrow-raising change this week has been the absence of new coach Boris Becker. Longtime coach Marian Vajda rejoined the team in Indian Wells, and it's hard not to think that the return to the familiar has helped Djokovic. The focus has been less on his fancy new coach and more on his game.
"I didn't win the Australian Open this year, as was the case in the last three years," Djokovic said. "I came to Indian Wells without a title this season, and that is a different feeling from previous years. So, of course, it's important for me to do well."
Djokovic is 4-2 against Isner. But the American has won both their matches at hard-court Masters events, in the 2012 BNP Paribas Open semifinals and the 2013 Western & Southern Open quarterfinals. Of their six matches, five have gone the distance and only one was settled in straight sets. "He's a better tennis player than me," Isner said after his quarterfinal win. "His results speak for themselves. I'm definitely not going to argue that. But I think best case scenario for me against him is on a hard court in the United States.... On a court like that and conditions like this, it suits me very well."
Isner has always been a frustrating opponent for Djokovic, who knows all to well how quickly things can turn on him with one bad point.
"He's definitely not somebody you like to play in the big heat with such [a big] serve," Djokovic said. "It's very challenging because he doesn't miss his serve too much, so you have to kind of be able to hold your composure from the first to the last point and be ready to play three tiebreaks."
Isner's serve was built for this combination of thin desert air and high-bouncing court. Isner is 4-0 in tiebreakers at this year's tournament, he's lost just one set through four matches and he's been broken only twice. Isner says he'll take the court on Saturday full of belief and without much pressure.
"I don't feel like there is too much pressure on me at all," he said. "If you look at it on paper, I'm not expected to win this match, so I'm going to go out there and I'm going to let it rip and believe I can win the match."
Saturday's other semifinal will feature Roger Federer, who has won 10 consecutive matches and is firmly in a "Zen" state of mind as he continues to build on his strong start to the season. He will face an athletic shot-maker full of unpredictability in No. 31 Alexandr Dolgopolov. The 25-year-old Ukrainian pulled off the upset of the tournament when he stunned Nadal 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in the third round, and he has followed it up with straight-set wins over No. 14 Fabio Fognini and No. 11 Milos Raonic to reach his first Masters 1000 semifinal and third semifinal in a row overall.
Federer and Dolgopolov have met only once, at the 2010 Swiss Indoors, where the Ukrainian retired trailing 6-4, 5-2. The two played a few practice matches during this past offseason, and Federer sounded confident that he had a read on Dolgopolov's unorthodox game.
"I like to play against [Dolgopolov]," Federer said after his 7-5, 6-1 win over Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals. "He really takes the ball early. He likes to take advantage of the fact that when there is a short ball he just smashes it. And he's got a great serve. He's super athletic. ... There are definitely going to be some interesting shots out there. That's what he has a tendency to do."
There has been much talk this week about the growing belief in the ATP locker room that the Big Four of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray are more vulnerable than they've been in years. Stanislas Wawrinka started the trend by winning the Australian Open and becoming the first player to beat both Nadal and Djokovic at a Slam, and it's continued these last two weeks at the first Masters event of the season. Federer appreciates the sentiment, but he won't believe it until he sees it.
"Well, they have to prove it," Federer said. "One tournament doesn't do it all for me yet. It's nice they believe more in it, and it's nice that they take Stan as an inspiration. That's great. That's what it's supposed to be. I think they should believe more in beating the top guys than just one-offs once in a while. ... It's just a question, does it happen frequently now or is this a one‑off event?
"Novak and myself are still in the draw, so we will see who's going to end up winning the tournament. Because that's where the points are, that's where the prestige is, and I think it's great to see new players getting opportunities to play on center court, in quarters, in semis, maybe in finals of Masters 1000s. It hasn't happened very often, but this might be the time. We'll see."
Prediction: Djokovic d. Isner; Federer d. Dolgopolov. This post has been updated.