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 quarterfinal victory against Julien Benneteau in just over an hour on 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.”
On the women’s side, No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska beat sixth-seeded Simona Halep 6-3, 6-4 to reach Sunday’s final for the first time in eight appearances.
“I’ve been here so many times and finally I did it,” Radwanska said.
Radwanska will play Flavia Pennetta, who defeated error-prone Li Na 7-6 (5), 6-3 in a matchup of 32-year-old players. It was Li’s second loss of the year.
There were eight straight service breaks in the first set, which Li lost with her eighth double-fault. Pennette broke Li twice in the second set, and she closed out the match that featured several long rallies with a backhand winner down the line.
“In the beginning of the week if you ask me, `What do you think, you going to make a final here?’ I would say, `Mmmm, I don’t think so,'” Pennetta said. “But my tennis, it’s good. I am pretty happy in the way I play.”
Li, the Australian Open champion, fell to 17-2 on the year, plagued by more than 50 unforced errors. She was playing her first major tournament as a No. 1 seed.
“It was pretty high-level match,” Li said. “I lose the match, a little bit sad, but I still can see a lot positive. At least, I like the way I hit the ball.”
In the other semifinal, Halep had Radwanska on the run most of the match, but Radwanska was up to the challenge, continually chasing down balls and making some well-placed returns. Radwanska was unable to convert on her first two match points on Halep’s serve in the ninth game. Radwanska’s swinging forehand volley set up her third in the next game and she won on Halep’s backhand that went wide.
“What I was trying to do was playing aggressive from the beginning of the match and just trying to go for my shots,” Radwanska said. “Pretty much all the games, doesn’t matter who was serving, it was really tight games. I was better just a few points each set.”
Halep, who had 21 winners, is projected to move up two spots to a career-best No. 5 in the world in Monday’s rankings, the highest ever by a Romanian woman.
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.”
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.
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.
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.