The Big Finish

by: Steve Tignor | February 13, 2012

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JiBy the middle of Friday afternoon, I needed to get out of the apartment. I’d watched all of Mardy Fish’s four-hour win over Stan Wawrinka that morning, then written the Racquet Reaction to it for Later, in between other work assignments, I’d watched with surprise as John Isner had taken a two-sets-to-one lead over Roger Federer. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t leave. Up to that point, Isner had been as coolly collected as any player I’d seen in a big moment this season. I had to see if it was for real. The American was overdue for a win like this, but I hadn’t thought it would happen now, against Federer, in Davis Cup, on the road, on clay.

As we found out, Isner’s cool was very much for real. I had expected, even if Isner ended up winning, that it would involve some nerves and gags and blown chances along the way. That’s what usually happens when a lower-ranked player, or even a very highly ranked player, gets close to beating Federer for the first time—it must be tough to ignore the feeling that you’re about to pull off the win of your career. If anything, though, the opposite happened to Isner. I doubt this too-tall, too-gangly player, who is almost as famous for not breaking serve as he is for holding, has ever put together a better or more fearless return game than he did to close out Federer. His last three returns were outright winners, without a hint of a nerve between them. He swung as if there wasn't anyone on the other side of the net, let alone you-know-who.

It was another surreal moment in a career that has seen a few of them. Isner, as we know, is the guy who won the longest match ever, and who began his ATP career in Washington, D.C., in 2007 by winning five straight matches in third-set tiebreakers. He plays what you might describe as a freaky game as well. At 6-foot-9, he has an intimidating serve—the dive-bombing kick might be scarier than the flat one—and wingspan, and he has a knack for the drawn-out, five-set saga. There aren't many, or maybe any, players whom the top guys hate seeing near them in the draw more than Isner. Rafael Nadal snuck away with a five-set win over him at Roland Garros last year; Novak Djokovic did the same in another Davis Cup tie; and Andy Murray has rarely looked or sounded so relieved as when he managed to end his close quarterfinal against Isner at the U.S Open last fall in four sets.

Now, for the first time, Isner has a win over one of the Big 4. He’s 1-10 against them, but watching him this weekend, you have to think that record could improve in 2012. It also seems likely that Isner, even though he turns 27 in April, is going to have the best season of his career. With few points to defend through the spring, he should join his Davis Cup teammate Fish in the Top 10 (Isner is No. 14 at the moment).

If you were going to bet on one of those two to win a major, I’d take Isner, despite the fact that Fish’s game is much more well-rounded. Isner, in his serve, has an obvious, virtually unstoppable weapon. Just as important, even before his win over Federer, he’s never been known as a choker. Isner likes to say that he learned to compete by being of part of a pressurized team environment at the University of Georgia—he was playing for his friends and school as well as himself.

What also helps Isner, I believe, is the distance that he keeps between himself and the sport. He said last year that he felt “no pressure at all” to be the Next Great American Player. That’s a burden that Andy Roddick and even Donald Young has played under, and which Fish got a taste of last year. But Isner appeared to be telling the simple truth when he denied that he ever thought about it. Part of the reason he’s a good competitor is that he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself. Part of it also might be that, as such a physical oddball and late-blooming talent, he’s never had that much pressure put on him. Only now is he beginning to look like the American to watch.

However he got there, this is Isner’s moment. He was, at least to me, more fun to watch this weekend as well. He served well, of course, but his return was improved, and he more than held his own against Federer with his inside-out forehand. Isner tends to hit that shot better, with more decisiveness and depth, when he needs it. He’ll never be what you would call a graceful player. His volleys often wilt. Between points, he seems to wander. Before he serves, he flips the ball through his legs nonchalantly. Often he appears to be out of gas. And when he looks bad, he looks really bad. But then, on a clutch point in a tiebreaker, Isner finds a way to get a look at a forehand, and to make it count.

This wasn’t Federer’s finest hour, of course. The surprise to me was how, after winning the first set, rather than loosening up and gaining confidence, Federer’s forehand and game went haywire instead. He played a poor game to be broken in the second set, and he let Isner take control of the all-important third-set tiebreaker. Was he unsure of his commitment to Davis Cup in general? Federer hadn't appeared in a World Group main-draw tie in eight years, and even if the Swiss had won and kept winning, was he prepared, in an Olympic season, to play all four? Whatever his mental state, Davis Cup continues to be a no-win-situation, in all ways, for Federer.

Still, Isner was due for this one, and he never hesitated. His down-to-earth fearlessness was inspiring to at least one hacker. On Saturday I played an opponent whom I rarely beat. Worse, I often get ahead and end up blowing the lead. He’s better than I am, but he also hates to lose, and I can end up mentally caving—thinking, essentially, “If you want it so much, just take it.” This time, though, with Isner’s surreal, slam-the-door service returns running through my mind, I didn’t cave. I ended up winning, much to my opponent’s annoyance.

That's one more reason for me to keep watching John Isner this year.

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