The 610 Isner is off and running at the end of July. He is moving into the heart of the hard court season with renewed conviction, growing optimism, and a sense that he is right where he belongs. So why am I worried? Because I have seen this pattern and picture before. Almost invariably, year after year, season after season, Isner is one of the bright shining lights on the U.S. Open Series. He loves competing in his nation, and always looks forward to competing in the American events. The heat and humidity work largely in his favor. He owns one of the two best serves in tennis, and that delivery is even more extraordinary when the weather is hot. The ball travels through the air faster on Isners thunderbolt of a first serve, and his second serve kicker bounds up higher.
Isner is a fellow in his element now, and his adversaries are well aware that he is exceedingly tough to beat at this time of the year. But my concern is that Isner takes too much out of himself during the U.S. Open Series and thus arrives in New York for the U.S. Open depleted. Only once in his career has Isner gone to the latter stages of the Open, reaching the quarterfinals in 2011 before losing a hard fought, four set battle with Andy Murray. The last two years at Flushing Meadows, Isner bowed out against the German Philipp Kohlschreiber, losing both contests in the third roundthe former in five sets and the latter in four.
I hope this year will be different for Isner. He needs to find a way to conserve more energy for New York, which is such a tough physical test for the 29-year-old. Fighting through best of five set matches at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is never an easy task for the American, who has enough difficulty dealing with strenuous best of three set clashes that can become inordinately physical. He cant afford to come into the Open in a compromised physical state, but last year that was clearly the case. He had won Atlanta in 2013 before reaching the final of Washington the next week. Isner bowed out in the first round of the Masters 1000 event in Canada but then made it to the final of Cincinnati the following week with wins over Richard Gasquet, Milos Raonic, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. Rafael Nadal halted Isner in a pair of tie-breaks, but on that stellar form the man from the U.S. should have been more dangerous in the Grand Slam championship of his country. Yet he paid a substantial physical price for playing too much hard competitive tennis across an arduous summer.
If he is not careful, Isner could well find himself in a similar predicament this year. In Atlanta, he survived a rigorous skirmish with Robby Ginepri in his opening match. Isner was two points away from a straight set loss at 5-5 in the second set tie-break against his compatriot, and then rescued himself from 15-40, double match point down at 4-5 in the final set, serving aces on both match points against him, holding on, breaking in the eleventh game, and then releasing four consecutive aces at 6-5 to close it out. He did not drop another set the rest of the way, culminating with a final round win over Dudi Sela.
Sela, of course, is a journeyman who is unaccustomed to making final round appearances on the ATP World Tour. The last time he had made it to a final was back in 2008 at Beijing, when another big server named Andy Roddick stopped the personable Israeli player. Sela is 29. He is only 59, more than a foot shorter than Isner. Not only were they separated by that inescapable fact, but there is also a significant stature gap between the two competitors. Isner knew full well that he would control his own destiny on this final round occasion in Atlanta. Only on a bad serving day with a malfunctioning forehand could Isner lose this match to Sela. He knew that. Sela realized it. The tennis world was fully aware that Isner was bound to prevail.
In the opening game of the final, Isner set the tone entirely. He aced Sela down the T at 123 MH, aced him down the T again at 125 MPH for 30-0, soared to 40-0 with a searing forehand winner off a weak return, and eventually held at 15 with another ace down the T. Three aces. An easy hold. Complete command. Isner was utterly in control. With Sela serving at 30-40 in the second game, Isner was clearly ready to run around his backhand to crunch a forehand return. Sela was probably intimidated by that prospect. He double faulted into the net. Isner had the immediate break for 2-0. On his way to 3-0, Isner produced two more aces.
Sela managed to get on the board by holding at 30 for 1-3, and then had a glimmer of hope in the fifth game as Isner double faulted to fall behind 30-40. The American rose swiftly and ably to that challenge. He aced Sela down the T, aced him again out wide, and then provoked a backhand passing shot error from the Israeli competitor. Isner thus moved to 4-1. Sela held in the following game but Isner surged to 5-2 with an easy hold. Two games later, Isner served for the set. He held at love to win it, 6-3, despite missing three out of four first serves.
At 1-1 in the second set, Isner made his move. Sela double faulted for 0-30, made it back to 30-30, but then Isner connected with a forehand down the line passing shot. At 30-40, Isner ran around his backhand for an explosive inside out forehand return winner. He was up a break, ahead 2-1, and not looking back. Isner held for 3-1, releasing three more aces. Sela knew he was running out of time and options. He held at love for 2-3 with an ace, but Isner held at 15 for 4-2. Sela held on from deuce for 3-4 before Isner held at 15 for 5-3. Sela held on in the ninth game at the cost of only one point, and so it was time for John Isner to serve for the match, to assert his authority one last time.
The tall American missed both first serves on his way to a 0-30 deficit, but he took the next point with a penetrating forehand and then produced a 140 MPH service winner for 30-30. A 137 MPH service winner lifted Isner to match point, and he closed it all out in style with his 15th and final ace, sent out at 139 MPH down the T. Isner had prevailed 6-3, 6-4 with a first rate performance. His level of play was remarkably high. Isner had served with devastating potency and immense accuracy. He had returned well in both sets. He had played the game fundamentally on his own terms.
Now he must pace himself across the rest of the summer. The Emirates Airline US. Open Series is important to be sure. Isner should take it all very seriously, keep trying to set the pace and garner as many points as possible. But he owes it to himself to make sure he does everything in his power to be physically fresh, mentally eager and emotionally highly charged for the last major tennis tournament of 2014. Isner must make his presence known at the Open, and it would be a shame if he got to New York once again knowing he had very little left in his tank.
Isner cant allow that to happen.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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