Despite the notion that tiebreakers are a crapshoot, luck wasn’t a part of John Isner’s 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) win over Novak Djokovic on St. Patrick’s Day. The towering American hit the serves he’s known for and the bold shots he’s capable of to reach his first Masters final and secure a place in the ATP Top 10.
It’s unlikely this outcome would have occurred had Isner not broken Djokovic down 5-4 in the first set, when the world No. 1 served for it. Isner had already been broken at love on a day when heavy, windy conditions seemed to favor Djokovic. But when the Serb hit a double start to start the ninth game, Isner and the crowd seemed to realize that a must-win situation had presented itself. Isner seized the moment, in part because of two shots that would play a major role in his eventual victory: His cross-court, inside-out forehand, and his return of serve. Isner twice hit deep bombs off Djokovic serves, the latter on break point, which came three points after Isner passed Djokovic at net. Djokovic would rue his squandered opportunity, losing a close tiebreaker, as Isner’s opponents often do. The No. 11 seed hit first serves—the other shots that determined the match—of 139 M.P.H. and 140 M.P.H. in the 13th game, among other zooming projectiles.
Over the past 16 months, Djokovic has won handfuls of matches on pure talent and in smothering fashion. But he’s also prevailed when his opponents were, at least for stretches, playing at their absolute best. Two that immediately come to mind are his win over Andy Murray in Rome, and against Gael Monfils in Cincinnati. So when Djokovic made his break-of-serve lead in the second set hold up, you had to wonder of Isner’s chance had disappeared, despite a full set of tennis to come—especially after watching the first point of the third set, a lob struck on the run and falling down that cleared the massive man at net. There may not be a more difficult shot in the sport to pull off.
But ultimately, this was Isner’s day because he played precisely like he did against Roger Federer in February’s Davis Cup tie: Aggressive, aggressive, aggressive. Actually, he may have played even better. Isner showed a willingness to trade groundstrokes with a baseline star—when the rallies began, the point was hardly conceded to Djokovic, as was widely predicted—and came forward when appropriate. The Georgia alum finished off many points at net; with his serve, maybe he can be the next serve-and-volleyer classicists have been pining for.
Djokovic had his chances, but you can’t fault him too much considering what he contended with. The defending champion reached 0-15 on Isner and his overpowering serve at least four times in the third set (I may have missed another instance), but he could never break him. The closest he came was at 3-3, when Djokovic earned his only break point of the set. It was gone seconds later, courtesy of a 143 M.P.H. missile out wide. Djokovic held his own serve from behind the rest of the way, even fending off a match point, but the tiebreaker would again fall in Isner’s favor. There were more Isner serves that would make drivers on the Autobahn take notice—a 143 M.P.H. ace to go up 4-2, a 138 M.P.H. strike out wide which led to a forehand winner, and a 144 M.P.H. dart up the middle that gave Isner three more match points. Djokovic put that return into net. What else could he do?
In the end, the irresistible force was greater than the immovable object, Djokovic and his return of serve. Djokovic again showed why he’s the best returner in tennis today, forcing Isner to focus throughout the entire, tense third set. But Isner managed to do that, and after losing three match points, he won the fourth with an ace. Isner may not be a part of the “Big Three,” but the big man could potentially beat them all in the span of two months, should Rafael Nadal make the final.