NEW YORK—Staring at the sizable 6’9” shadow John Isner cast across the court at the start of the fourth-set tiebreaker, Andy Murray wore the edgy expression of a man informed he’d have to scale a skyscraper step-by-step to reach his desired destination.
Riding a nine-match winning streak, Isner had won 13 of his last 14 tiebreakers—including all six he’d played en route to this U.S. Open quarterfinal—and he had the Arthur Ashe Stadium faithful foaming at the mouth on the verge of a fifth-set frenzy.
None of that mattered much to Murray, who pressed the mute button on the uprising. Managing his nerve and serve masterfully in the tiebreaker, Murray deconstructed the towering American in a demanding 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) triumph (three hours and 24 minutes in length) that sent him into his fourth straight major semifinal.
This was a stylistic clash pitting one of tennis’ most explosive servers against one of its most accurate returners. At times, Murray bamboozled the big man with a varied assortment of sneaker-scraping slices, off-pace floaters and flat drives into the corners. A low ball that skimmed Isner’s size-15 Nikes in the first set forced him to scoop an awkward forehand, but he shanked the shot and Murray broke for 6-5. The 2008 finalist leaned into a backhand pass down the line that rattled Isner’s racquet, and collecting the opener in 51 minutes.
With first lady Michelle Obama watching in the stands, the Scot sporting the scraggly start of a budding beard won eight of the first nine points in the second set for a 2-0 lead. But when Murray coaxed successive errors to take a two-set lead, it seemed Isner, who has never rallied from a two-set hole, would need a Presidential pardon to escape this deficit.
This wouldn’t be a Murray match without the mandatory moaning and groaning as complication gave way to growing aggravation. If Murray wore a mood ring it would have flashed an ornery Oscar the Grouch image as he cursed, tossed his baseball cap to the ground and smacked his strings as the match wore on. Meanwhile, Isner, who prepped for this match by edging 12th-seeded Gilles Simon—stylistically a Murray Lite—continued to pound away in building a 4-1 lead in the third set, which he would eventually take.
Murray’s moment of truth came when he stared down two break points at 4-all in the fourth. He saved the first with a 129 MPH ace and the second with a gutsy second serve and brilliant half-volley. Lifting his level in the tiebreaker, Murray produced four winners in the first five points for a 4-1 lead. On the next point, Isner came to net with Murray off the court; the point was nearly in hand. But the Georgia Bulldog took his eye off the ball as it bled off his string bed and died in the net. Still ruing that miscue, Isner netted a dropper to hand Murray four match points, and the No. 4 seed quickly closed it out. Isner won the ace race (17 to 14), but Murray prevailed in the fourth set primarily because of his serving, winning 23 of 27 points played on his first serve and striking six aces in the set.
Murray must manage both his emotions and serve effectively if he's to advance to his second U.S. Open final, as he awaits either defending champ Rafael Nadal or 2003 champ Andy Roddick.