Indian Wells, California: 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 last month.
"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 Frenchman 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, Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta handed top seed Li Na just her second loss of the year, winning their semifinal 7-6 (5), 6-3.
The women combined for eight straight service breaks in the first set, which Li lost with her eighth double-fault. Pennetta then broke the No. 2-ranked Li two more times in the second set and closed out the win with a backhand down the line.
Li, the reigning Australian Open champion, fell to 17-2 on the year. She was the top seed for the first time at one of the top-level WTA events.
"It was pretty high-level match," said the Chinese star, who made more than 50 unforced errors. "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."
Pennetta will play No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland in Sunday's final. Radwanska beat sixth-seeded Simona Halep of Romania 6-3, 6-4 to reach her first final in eight appearances at the tournament.
"I've been here so many times and finally I did it," Radwanska said.
Halep had Radwanska on the run most of the match, but the Polish player was up to the challenge, continually chasing down balls and making well-placed returns.
"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 is projected to move up two spots to a career-best No. 5 in the world in Monday's WTA 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.
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 will next play 12th-seeded John Isner, the lone remaining American, in Saturday's semifinals. Isner beat Djokovic at the same stage in 2012 before losing to Roger Federer in the final.
Federer, a four-time winner here, will meet Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine in the other semifinal.
Isner fired 13 aces to beat 20th-seeded Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) in Friday's other quarterfinal. Isner dropped serve twice to fall behind 4-2 in the second set, but broke back to level the score at 5-all and then dominated the tiebreaker.
"I had all my energy going for me," he 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."
The American is projected to return to the top 10 in Monday's ATP 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."