Isners failure to close out Ward was unacceptable both to him and the entire American squad. In many ways, they lost the tie right then and there. Isner fought with quiet ferocity but his dismal returning during that critical encounter was what led to his ultimate downfall. Lets examine what happened sequentially. Murray opened the proceedings against Donald Young, and the British No. 1 was nothing short of stupendous in every facet of the game as he recorded a four set triumph. He defended with astonishing alacrity, served intelligently and accurately, and returned (as usual), almost out of this world. Young tried exceedingly hard to impose his left-handed game, and looked for every opportunity to dictate off his forehand side. Yet Murray had the answers for everything that was thrown his way. He just about took away Youngs inside out forehand for long periods with his supreme capacity to cover the court and make the running forehand from wide positions.
The tone and texture of the match was evident from the outset as Murray broke Young at 15 in the opening game. He scrambled in his own elegant way to get that break by coaxing two overhead errors from Young with high and effective defensive lobs. Acutely aware of Murrays speed and excellent anticipation, Young missed those smashes by going for too much. Murray took that set 6-1 without losing a point on his serve. The second set was a virtual carbon copy of the first. Murray conceded only two points on his way to a 3-0 lead before Young held in the fourth game. But the 27-year-old Scot resumed his mastery swiftly, taking 12 of the next 16 points, winning another 6-1 set in the process.
That Young managed to salvage the third set was a testament to his pride, adaptability and determination. He backed up his serve with more conviction and raised his game considerably. The two players were on serve until the tenth game, when Young achieved his lone break of the afternoon. At 4-5, 30-30, Murray missed a backhand down the line from an awkward position before sending an inside out forehand long. A resolute Young was back in the match, down two sets to one, yet ascendant. But his flicker of hope was extinguished almost immediately. Young held at love to start the fourth set, but Murray collected three consecutive games from there and never looked back, prevailing 6-1, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. Great Britain was out in front 1-0.
Out stepped Isner and Ward onto the court, with both competitors fully recognizing the importance of their clash. And yet, Isner knew he could not justify a loss under any circumstances. Ward had the luxuryas he did a year ago when he toppled Sam Querrey on the opening day of the Great Britain-U.S. Davis Cup clash on clay in Californiaof having much less to lose than his opponent. Be that as it may, the workmanlike Ward had to find a way to stop one of the games two or three greatest servers indoors, and that is no simple task. The first set was settled in a tie-break, and Isner was fortunate to survive in that sequence. Down 4-2, he directed a backhand crosscourt that turned into a very fortunate let cord winner. He followed with an ace for 4-4, took the next point, and then moved to 6-4 with a trademark flat forehand winner down the line. Isner made it five points in a row when Ward committed an unforced error, and so the American was up a set.
Isner managed to break Ward at the end of the second set, and was right where he wanted and expected to be, ahead two sets to love, seemingly on his way to victory. But the 29-year-old American seemed to let his guard down slightly, dropping the third set 6-3. On he went to a fourth set tie-break, and seasoned observers assumed that Isner would prevail. He is one of the games leading tie-break players, and this was a time when he figured to press his advantage and get off the court. Ward had won a remarkable 24 of 27 points on serve across the fourth set into the tie-break, but Isner only needed to make a few timely and clutch returns to get across the finish line.
He never came close. Serving the first point of that tie-break, Isner sent a low forehand volley down the line with nothing on it. Ward is a first rate counter-attacker, quick and resourceful, deceptive and opportunistic. He released a backhand passing shot up the line for a winner, and that mini-break seemed to propel him right through the rest of the tie-break. Ward took both of his service points for 3-0 and then Isner inexplicably went for a forehand drop shot winner, sending that shot into the net. It was 4-0 for a revitalized Ward, who eventually succeeded 7-3 to force a fifth set.
Ward served first in the final set, and he exploited that opportunity to the hilt. With the pressure mounting as the set aged, Isner was the man under more duress. At 3-4, 30-40, he saved a break point with a patented service winner wide to the Ward backhand. Isner then served an ace and soon held on for 4-4. But two games later, the stakes were even larger. Isner was twice down match point, wiping away the first with an overhead winner, saving the second with another thundering service winner. After three deuces, Isner forthrightly held on for 5-5 with his 37th ace of the contest.
At 9-10, Isner erased a third match point against him with a magnificent sliced backhand approach shot that was unanswerable. Isner stood his ground once more to reach 10-10. But soon he was confronted by another crisis. Serving at 10-11, Isner was down match point for the fourth time, but he displayed extraordinary poise, connecting with a terrific first serve that set up a forehand inside in winner. Ward then created a fifth match point chance, but Isner saved that one with a superb first serve down the T which elicited a forehand return long. Isner gamely made his way to 11-11, and finally gave himself an opening on the Ward serve.
Ward had dropped only 14 points in eleven service games over the course of the fifth set, and had never been stretched even to deuce. But now Isner at last found some timing, energy and inspiration on his returns. Twice he travelled to break point, only to be denied by a spirited adversary fueled by a home crowd cheering his every move. On the first break point, Isner was outmaneuvered by an assertive Ward, who put away an overhead. After Ward double faulted to present Isner with a second break chance, the 28-year-old British competitor took matters into his own hands again, coming forward unswervingly to punch a backhand volley down the line. Isner could not respond. Ward held on for 12-11. An increasingly fatigued Isner was pushed to deuce on his serve before holding for 12-12, and that pattern was repeated before Isner held for 13-13. The big man was living entirely too dangerously.
Ward, meanwhile, was backing up his serve tidily. He did not seem to doubt himself in the least. Now Isner was serving to stay in the match for the tenth time at 13-14. He did not miss a first serve in the 28th game of a draining fifth set, but that did not translate into a single point for the American. Isner missed a two-hander down the line for 0-15, netted a low forehand volley for 0-30, and then pulled a crosscourt forehand wide when he had a huge opening for a winner. It was 0-40. Isner was down match point for the sixth time, and he would not escape. He approached the net, but Wards dipping backhand passing shot was too good. Isner wearily netted a backhand volley. The British No. 2 had broken at love. Victory went to the journeyman Ward and his nation by scores of 6-7 (4), 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 15-13.
Isners penetrating defeat meant that the brothers Bryan had no alternative but to win if they wanted to keep the American hopes alive. Bob and Mike Bryan took on Dominic Inglot and Jamie Murray. Murraythe older brother of teammate Andy Murrayis a left-handed doubles specialist. What made this encounter so intriguing from a spectator standpoint was that Murray and Bryanthe two southpaws on the courtboth played the deuce court for their respective nations. In the early stages, Jamie Murray was the most vulnerable of the four players. The Bryans were entirely on top of his serve, returning with force, persuasion and consistency. The Americans prevailed 6-3 in the opening set, breaking Murray twice. They replicated that feat in the second set, winning it 6-2 for a two sets to love lead.
Murray had not held serve even once over the first two sets. That seemed like a very bad omen for the British. Moreover, the Bryans are formidable front runners who have been unassailable during their careers when building two set leads in best of five set assignments. But they soon found themselves in a riveting and often harrowing skirmish, fighting tenaciously for mere survival, seeking ways to diminish the growing confidence, effusiveness and authority of the British tandem. Murray started moving his serve around more artfully, and his first volley was much more dependable. Inglots explosive first serve was largely unstoppable. Both British players improved their returning enormously, particularly the spirited Murray, who was urged on by his fittingly encouraging brother and teammates at courtside.
The British pair broke Mike Bryan for a 3-1 lead in the third set and held their own serves throughout. They took that set 6-3. The fourth set was hotly contested and brilliantly played on both sides of the net. Murray rallied from break point down to hold for 2-2 but no one else faced a break point. The level of play was often astounding. In the fourth set tie-break, Bob Bryan served with a 5-3 lead as the Americans stood two points away from victory. But Murray made a scorching low return that set up Inglot for the winning poach volley down the middle. The British team served their way into a 6-5 lead. Mike Bryan took the Americans back to 6-6 but once more Murray came through with a terrific low return that enabled Inglot to make another poach forehand volley winner.
Murray served at 7-6 (and set point) with a chance to lift his team into a fifth set, but lost both service points. Bob Bryan was serving at 8-7 as the Americans garnered their first match point, but Inglot sent him sprawling to the court. The backhand return from the British player was angled sharply, and Bob missed a forehand half-volley long. Murray followed with a winning return of serve, and then Inglot sent a first serve precisely down the T, giving Murray the opportunity to put away a volley. Set to Great Britain, 10-8 in the tie-break. Despite having a match point, the Bryans found themselves in the dangerous territory of a fifth set.
Furthermore, the British team served first in that final set. At 1-1, Murray was pushed to deuce but he refused to budge. The tennis soared to an even higher level than in the fourth set as all four players ceded no ground and kept holding serve. Three times the Americans served to stay in the match, but they were not found wanting. Bob Bryan held at 15 for 5-5, Mike held at love for 6-6, and Bob held at 30 for 7-7. That was admirable stuff from the twins, who could not afford to let their guard down with so much riding on the outcome of the skirmish. At 7-7, the twins made their move. They broke Murray with some impressive returning. Mike Bryan made a fine low return and brother Bob was looking to poach. A harried Murray understandably missed a forehand first volley. Mike Bryan promptly served out the match and the Americans came through a trying battle 6-3, 6-2, 3-6 6-7 (8), 9-7.
That set the stage for Murray and Isner to contest the opening match of the final day. Great Britain, of course, was ahead 2-1, and Isner had only himself to blame for that. Had he beaten Ward, Isner could have been in a position to close out an American triumph with a win over Murray. Instead, the earnest American was hoping to simply keep the Americans out there on the battlefield. Isner played a very good first set. In fact, he was better than he has been all year. He should have put that set in his victory column and then might have given himself a chance to succeed.
But Isner did not make good on a golden opportunity, partially due to his own flaws, and to some degree because Murray was unwilling to surrender in the crunch. The American displayed grit and gumption in holding for 2-1 in the opening set. There were four deuces in that game. Murray returned with gusto. Yet Isner managed to hold on, putting 13 of 14 first serves in play, serving six aces, performing commendably under pressure. In the next game, Isner had a break point on Murrays serve, but the British player took utter control of that point and won it with an inside out forehand winner. Murray held on for 2-2. Isner found complete rhythm in his next two love service games, connecting with seven of eight first serves.
Now it was time for the American to test Murrays nerve again. Murray led 40-15 at 3-4, only to serve consecutive double faults. Isner followed with a devastatingly potent forehand down the line that gave him a break point. Murray saved it by drawing an error from Isner on a running forehand. A blazing inside out forehand winner earned Isner a second break point, but Murray erased that one with a service winner down the T. Isner came through with a scorching forehand return winner for a third break point, but Murray saved it with an ace out wide. After five deuces, an unwavering Murray moved to 4-4. Isner, however, was undismayed, holding at 15 for 5-4, getting four out of five first serves in.
Isner was now flowing freely and feeling the ball surprisingly well. With Murray serving to stay in the set in the tenth game, Isner was ultra-aggressive, surging forward behind a delayed backhand approach to put away a forehand volley, then crushing an inside out forehand winner for 0-30. Murray won the next point but then double faulted long.
Isner had advanced to 15-40, double set point on the Murray serve. But the American was probably too patient for his own good on the first set point, waiting until he thought he was ready to unload off the forehand as he went down the line. Isner timed that shot horrendously, driving a forehand down the line well long. At 30-40, Isner had a good look at a second serve, but sent a forehand inside out return into the net. But a sizzling forehand down the line from Isner drew an error from his opponent, providing the American with a third set point opportunity. A poised and purposeful Murray saved it with an ace out wide. After Isner missed another return, Murray served an ace out wide in the ad court to hold for 5-5.
Murray had saved three break (and set) points in that game after averting four break points earlier in the set. And yet, Isner plodded on with deep professionalism, holding at 30, serving three aces in that stellar game. Murray retaliated with a hold at 30 for 6-6, and so it was tiebreaker time. Isner essentially lose this sequence on the very first point. He released his first double fault of the match, sending a second serve to the Murray forehand that went long. Murray did not lose a point on his serve in the tie-break, winning it seven points to four. Isners double fault was the lone point he lost on serve in that sequence.
Isner clearly needed that set more than Murray. He had been out there in the Ward match for four hours and 56 minutes two days earlier. Knowing he would need to play at least three more sets to oust Murray was surely disconcerting for the American. Nevertheless, Isner remained impressive in the second set until he served at 2-3. He netted an inside out forehand and then netted an inside-in shot off the same flank. Isner connected with his 16th ace of the contest for 15-30 and then got back to 30-30, but Murray was unrelenting on his returns. He rushed Isner into a forehand down the line mistake for 30-40 and then rolled a topspin lob winner out of the reach and over the head of the confounded American.
Murray had achieved what would be the one and only service break of the entire match. It could not have come at a better time. Murray closed out the set confidently, holding at 15 for 5-2, withstanding a love hold from Isner in the eighth game, and then holding at love with four straight first serves in the ninth game. Set to Murray, 6-3. He liked where he stood and seemed to sense he was going to wrap up this contest in relatively short order. But matters were not that simple.
In the opening game of the third set, Isner trailed 0-40 but did not miss a first serve while winning five points in a rowtaking three of them with aces. Both players settled into a groove on serve for the rest of the set. Isner acquitted himself well. In his next five service games on his way to another tie-break, Isner lost only seven points, serving six aces in that stretch. Murray had a couple of difficult service games but did not face a break point. But he was the more self-assured competitor in the tie-break. With Isner serving at 1-2, Murray pounced. His return was laser sharp. He had Isner in a bind. Murray would come forward and his biting approach set up an overhead winner. Isner served his 28th and last ace for 2-3, but Murray was unstoppable now. He produced a service winner to the Isner backhand and then served his 15th ace for 5-2. Murray advanced to 6-2 by approaching successfully to the Isner backhand.
Isner saved two match points, but Murray composed himself on the third, serving a 16th and final ace out wide to wrap up a well-deserved 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory. Murray had completed a pair of first rate performances against Young (who won the dead rubber match over Ward 5-7, 1-0, ret.) and Isner, losing his serve only once in the two matches, conducting himself with dignity, deep concentration and surprising emotional restraint at all times. Murray did his job remarkably well and played an unimpeachable brand of tennis. I would not be surprised if he wins either Indian Wells or Miami.
As for Isner, he can hold his head high after losing his serve only once against one of the sports premier returners. But Isner needs to be self-critical as well; losing three of the four tie-breaks he played over this Davis Cup weekend is just not good enough for a man who fundamentally makes his living in those sequences, year in and year out. Nor can he defend blowing that two set lead against Ward. He must start making amends soon after a disappointing start to the 2015 season. This is a crucial year in the career of John Isner, who should be a much better player than he is. Settling for perennial top 20 status is simply insufficient for a player who must unmistakably improve his return of serve markedly. Isner would do well to reach back with every resource he has to turn his year and career around now. He will be 30 at the end of April, and the feeling grows that these next six months are absolutely critical for the tall fellow from the U.S.
<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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