Court sense is one of Gilles Simon's strengths, but for two sets today open court space was as scarce as sea-side real estate in Monte-Carlo. So when Simon finally got John Isner right where he wanted him — off balance and lunging for a volley dancing in the dirt — the French faithful couldn't help but roar in approval. That's when Isner pressed the mute button.
Scraping consecutive stab volleys off his shoelaces to prolong the point, Isner calmly guided a backhand pass up the line to break Simon's serve for a 6-5 lead. Even when Simon managed to drag Isner into defensive spots on the court, the big man had the last word. In an authoritative performance of offense overwhelming counter-punching, Isner posted a 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 sweep of Simon to level the USA's Davis Cup tie with host France, 1-1, on the red clay of the Monte-Carlo Country Club.
Summoning the level of play of he delivered in dispatching Roger Federer on the red clay of Fribourg in February, Isner was oppressive from the outset. He cracked 53 winners compared to 15 for Simon, did not drop serve and converted four of his eight break-point chances. Denying a break point in the third game, Isner rifled a forehand return winner down the line to break at 15 for a 3-1 lead. Serving for the set, Isner erased a break point then used a drop shot winner to set up his second set point. A vicious wide serve sent Simon off the court, Isner pounded a forehand winner to close it in 43 minutes. The world No. 11 served just 39 percent in the first set yet still dominated, backing up his second serve with authority (winning 81 percent of his second-serve points) and striking 18 winners compared to 4 for his French counter part.
If you're one of the skeptics who deride Isner as little more than a mammoth server, take a look at the tape of this match and you'll see a much more polished player. Isner is a life-long hard-court player, but clay brings both clarity and urgency to his game. He knows he can't afford to hang back and grind points on dirt with quicker players so he's compelled to take the first strike. He effectively neutered Simon's counter punching by blasting drives down both lines, backing the Frenchman up with his favored inside-out forehand then sometimes carressing drop shots into the open court. Nearly all of Isner's drop-shot winners came off the forehand. With a wingspan so wide he looks like he could bear hug both net posts simultaneously, Isner won 22 of 30 trips to net.
Reeling off 16 of the first 19 points, Isner roared out to a 4-0 lead in the second set, sealing it in 30 minutes. The slender Simon, whose blue adidas shirt draped off his frame like a sheet on a clothes line, is 10 inches shorter than the 6'9" Isner but isn't lacking in grit. He earned break points in the sixth and eight games and snaked a backhand return over the net to gain set point at 5-4. Isner hit a corkscrew kicker to set up a forehand down the line to save set point. His long reach helped him dig out those stirring volleys to earn the decisive break in the following game.