In some ways, this match went in a predictable manner: David Ferrer started slowly before getting his teeth into it—the phrase seems almost literal with him—while John Isner counted on his big serve, first and second, to make him almost unbreakable. In at least one other way, though, it was a surprise. At the beginning and at the end, the two moments when the match was being decided, it was Isner who was the stronger and more assured player from the baseline.
The big American ended up committing more unforced errors overall—31 to 21 for Ferrer. But it was Ferrer who committed them at the wrong moments. He had 10 by the fourth game, which is far too many against Isner. Once he had an early break, the first set was quickly his. More surprising, though, was that Ferrer’s inconsistency cropped back up at the end of the match. Serving down 3-4 in the third, he missed a routine forehand and a routine backhand. Again, Isner had his break; two minute, two aces, and two service winners later, and it was all over, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
As uncharacteristically erratic as Ferrer was, it was Isner’s aggressive but well-measured performance that was decisive. He kept the ball deep, defended with his slice backhand, worked the points so he could get a forehand, and went big with that shot, without going for broke. Even on his own serve, Ferrer was forced to react and retrieve. Only in the middle of the second set did Isner lose his grip and begin to spray ground strikes. Put that sound ground game together with the Isner serve, which he was bouncing well out of Ferrer’s strike zone, and you have a formidable combination.
Ferrer still has big things ahead, in London for the World Tour Finals, and in Spain for the Davis Cup final. As for Isner, this has to count as a mini-breakthrough. He beat a Top 10 player, reached his first Masters semifinal, and will finish the year in the Top 20 after getting off to poor start. Proof that his type of game, anchored by a big bailout serve, is tough for anyone to overcome.