You wouldn't know it from the way he keeps his chestnut-colored hair just so, or how crisply and neatly he's always attired, but Roger Federer is a guy who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty once he steps onto a tennis court.
If tennis were anything like auto repair, Federer would have black halos under his fingernails and a perpetual case of skinned knuckles.
Federer's willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done isn't always apparent, mainly because you don't exactly think of him as a guy who has to work hard and fight for every good thing that comes way. His natural talent and flair ensure that he makes success look easy. But as his 7-6 (7), 6-3 win over Long John Isner in the Indian Wells final today demonstrated, the world No. 3 can get down in dirty and mix it up with the best of them.
The outstanding element in this match was Federer's ability to stand up to Isner's nuclear serve, an accomplishment that can't be fully attributed to the American's decision to pursue a smart rather than merely overpowering serving strategy. I assume that Isner's goal was to keep Federer off balance, and avoid relying too much on own his ace and service-winner potential. For a long time, it seemed like a worthy goal, too.
But the approach also gave Federer a better chance to not only return serve, but to create once the ball was put into play. To Isner's credit, this didn't make him look like just another big galoot with a monster serve—he played well off the ground, and showed why that forehand, especially when it's applied inside-out, is a legitimate weapon. And if Isner didn't exactly traipse across the court with the dancer-like precision of his opponent, the 6-foot-9 giant's ability to get where he's going with half the steps of a mere six-footer proved a valuable asset.
Let's not kid ourselves, though. Isner isn't going to win matches against the likes of Federer by coming out on top in baseline duels, and in the long run, Federer's ability to get the ball in play—and his advantage once a point was underway—were decisive factors.
The key, as always against a player like Isner, was the service return. Isner's first-serve conversion rate was excellent (73 percent, which was 10 percentage points better than Federer's), yet he won "only" 71 percent of his first-serve points (Federer was 33 of 35, for a first-serve conversion rate of 94 percent). Isner had just four aces, Federer seven.
When you're up against a John Isner, it's imperative not only to get a handle on the serve, but also to take such good care of your own that he doesn't get too many looks at 15-30 or 30-all situations. In the second set today, Isner didn't win a point against Federer's serve until the Swiss had already secured the critical service break and led 4-3, 30-0.
But let's not jump too far ahead.
Isner played an excellent first set, and Federer didn't see a break point until the 12th game. That one was also a set point, but it hardly mattered because Isner brushed it away with 129 M.P.H. service winner to the backhand, and went on to hold.
In the ensuing tiebreaker, Federer was the first to blink—a bad sign against so formidable a server. But Federer immediately wiped out the mini-break by nailing a first-serve return to Isner's feet for an error. An Isner inside-out forehand error put Federer in charge, 4-3, but he gave the advantage right back with a double fault.
Isner hung in there, and Federer failed to convert a couple of set points. But at 7-7, with Isner serving, Federer shanked a backhand pass that clipped his frame—and the big man, half-aloft, decided to let the ball go by. It dropped inside the court to provide Federer with yet another set point—but with serve. A Federer service winner ended the set.
Now, that was dirty.
Federer's return improved from good to excellent in the second set; as if he was not to be undone. Isner lifted his own game, at least when it came to his rallying ability. Still, as well—and differently—as both men served, it looked as if another tiebreaker lay in store. Or it did, until the seventh game, with Isner serving at 3-all.
After winning the first point, Isner made a backhand error. Federer then lured Isner up to the net on the ensuing two points, and won both with passing shots. The next point was the critical one of the match. Down 15-40, Isner hit a good serve to the body. As he had so often this day, Federer got his racquet on it and blocked back the backhand with so little pace that Isner had no choice but to take to the net again. Federer whistled a backhand close to his body and Isner smothered the volley to surrender his serve.
Federer powered through his next service game and won the match with another break when Isner, down match-point, made an inside-out forehand error.