INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) — For the first time in four years, Novak Djokovic is without a big title to start the year. Or any title.
The Serb is used to arriving at the BNP Paribas Open with the Australian Open in his back pocket, having won the season’s first Grand Slam three straight years. He lost in the quarterfinals in Melbourne in January, and then lost in the semifinals at Dubai.
“That is a different feel from previous years,” he said.
So Djokovic is especially eager to hoist the trophy at Indian Wells, where he’s a two-time champion. He took a step toward that goal with a 6-1, 6-3 victory against Julien Benneteau in just over an hour in the quarterfinals Friday.
“I’m on the right path and playing semifinals, which is always of course a challenge and a good result,” he said, “but I want to try to go as far as I can.”
Djokovic never faced a break point on his serve against Benneteau, the only unseeded player left in the men’s draw. The Serb held break points on Benneteau’s serve in seven of eight games, and broke him four times during the match played in near 90-degree temperatures.
It was Djokovic’s easiest match so far. He needed three sets to get by Marin Cilic and Alejandro Gonzalez, and had to win a tiebreaker against Victor Hanescu in his opening match.
“I felt like I was very focused on the court from the start, and it’s what I was looking for. First few matches I played good tennis but I had some ups and downs,” Djokovic said. “He made a lot of unforced errors, and obviously I just needed to make him play an extra shot and serve well.”
On the women’s side, top-seeded Li Na played 20th-seeded Flavia Pennetta and No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska took on sixth-seeded Simona Halep in evening semifinals.
Djokovic, a two-time champion at Indian Wells, will play 12th-seeded John Isner, the lone remaining American, in Saturday’s semifinals. The Serb has lost at that stage the last two years, including 2012, when Isner beat him and lost to Roger Federer in the final.
Federer, a four-time winner here, will meet Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine in the other semi.
Isner fired 13 aces to beat 20th-seeded Ernests Gulbis 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3). Isner got broken twice to trail 4-2 in the second. He broke back at 5-all and after Gulbis tied it 6-all, Isner dominated the second tiebreaker.
He served consecutive aces, including one at 141 mph to set up match point. Isner’s backhand down the line clinched the victory. Last year, Isner played in and won the most tiebreakers on the ATP Tour.
“I had all my energy going for me,” Isner said. “I know I have those serves in my arsenal. It’s just a matter of me pulling them out and I went for them.”
Isner is projected to return to the top 10 in Monday’s rankings, the first time he has been there since September 2012.
“It’s hard to stay there,” he said. “I fell back, but I have been knocking on the door for quite some time. It feels good to get back in there.”
Benneteau was playing just his second career quarterfinal in a Masters 1000 event, never having reached a semifinal at this level. He committed 32 unforced errors in losing for the sixth straight time to Djokovic.
“It’s a shame at this stage of the competition to play like I did. I should’ve been better,” he said. “It’s difficult when you play Novak, who is serving very well and returning so deep.”
Benneteau staved off three break points to hold for a 2-1 lead in the second set, then used a pair of 126-mph serves to hold for a 3-2 lead. But Djokovic won the final four games, all on errors by Benneteau, to close out the victory.
Benneteau’s last shot of the match was called out in the corner near the baseline, and he challenged the call, leading to an awkward moment at the net between the two players. Once it was confirmed out, they shook hands and walked off.
Djokovic connected on 92 percent of his first serves, had seven aces and had just 12 unforced errors. He was effective at the net, too, winning six of eight trips there.