A sport that needs every bit of personality it can get held its breath for a few minutes Tuesday at Indian Wells.
One of tennis' marquee names had departed from the BNP Paribas Open the day before, and out the door with upset victim Rafael Nadal went lots of star quality.
Tennis: An article on the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells in the March 12 Sports section said that Novak Djokovic defeated Alejandro Gonzalez, 6-1, 6-3, 6-1, on Tuesday. The score was 6-1, 3-6, 6-1.
It's not a ticket-selling thing. Most of that was accomplished here months and weeks ago. It's image for the sport, TV ratings on the weekend and a general desire to get as many people as possible to pay attention and care. Football, basketball, baseball and hockey aren't the only pro sports pushing their brand.
So when an unheralded Colombian named Alejandro Gonzalez — ranked 91st and without a match win on the ATP tour this year until he got two of them here in the desert — forced a center-court match into a third set, there were many eyes opening wide.
Gonzalez seemed to have his second-seeded opponent in trouble. Would Novak Djokovic leave early, too?
The answer, a definitive no, came quickly.
Djokovic, the rubbery-limbed Serb, held serve to start the third set, then fought off a 40-love lead by Gonzalez to get it back to deuce, where the fun began.
Six more times, Gonzalez had game point. Each time, Djokovic got it back to deuce. It became fairly evident, in a sport where real turning points are usually overrated or overstated, that this game would be one.
When it ended, the future of this match was clear. Djokovic had the needed service break and the rest was merely ceremonial. The final 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 score was a good measure of the match.
But how that game ended was even more telling. The often flamboyant Djokovic, whose skills are on a level with his personality, stopped all the smashing and angling and top-spinning and slicing by touching a perfect drop shot over the net on the first break point he had managed, in a game that probably took 15 minutes.
With Gonzalez well behind the baseline, the ball fluttered slowly, barely over the net and settled right on the sideline. Gonzalez didn't even try. Like the large crowd in the large stadium watching, he was witnessing a moment of athletic greatness.
So many players try that shot. So many fail. It takes as much guts as touch. Few will try it at the key moment in a match. But then, few are Djokovic.
He is 26 now. It was seven years ago, in this tournament, that his stature began to rise and tennis began to take notice. He made it all the way to the Indian Wells final in 2007, losing to an already established rising star, Nadal. Then, he went off to Miami, to the second of the consecutive Masters Series 1000 events on the calendar, and beat Nadal en route to winning the title.
"This tournament has a special place in my career," he said Tuesday. ". . . This was one of the springboards for the future success I had."
And what success it has been.
He has won six Grand Slam titles. He has been ranked No. 1 for a total of 101 weeks. He started the 2011 season with 41 straight victories. He has had so many memorable battles with the other current established stars of the men's game that they are hard to rank.
He is 17-22 against Nadal, but also achieved a feat that is Joe DiMaggio-like in his sport — he beat Nadal seven times in a row.