Stepping to the line to serve the United States into the Davis Cup semifinals, the shadow 6'9" John Isner cast across the red clay looked more menacing than the placid expression on his face. Tugging the brim of his baseball cap down further, Isner revealed about as much emotion as the red, white and blue crocodile sitting on his shirt. The vicious bite of his serve spoke volumes.
Swooping forward, Isner swatted a forehand swing volley winner — a stylish exclamation point to a declarative statement — to seal a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3 victory over French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and clinch the USA's quarterfinal conquest of France. Isner swept Gilles Simon to level the tie on Friday and closed convincingly today. The world No. 11 fired 56 winners compared to 43 for Tsonga and erased six of the seven break points he faced. In seven sets of play this weekend, the big man denied 11 of 12 break-point chances, repeatedly snuffing out French hopes with decisive swings of his right arm.
The sheer sound of Isner's wrecking ball serve bounding off the back wall commands respect — he blasted 16 aces and won 64 percent of his second-serve points — but his savvy and shot selection, evident in forehand drop shots that left Tsonga sometimes spinning his wheels behind the baseline and the fact Isner won 37 of 49 trips to net, were key components as well. Isner beat Tsonga playing the all-court game the former Australian Open finalist favors and did it on a surface that has been sink hole for American Davis Cup dreams. Tsonga dumped successive double faults to hand Isner the break and a 5-3 first-set lead. Isner's ace capped the 33-minute first set with a bang.
A demanding backhand volley helped Isner dig out of a 0-30 hole and hold for 6-6 in the second set. The tie breaker turned on second serves. At 4-all, Isner pounced on a Tsonga second serve, ripping a forehand return winner down the line. Isner attacked behind his own second serve to earn set point. He struck a 141 mph ace that stung with finality to seize the 66-minute second set. An emotive, exlosive player, the sixth-ranked Tsonga hung tough in coaxing a double fault from Isner to break for a 6-5 third-set lead. But Isner broke for a 2-0 fourth-set advantage and never looked back, winning 16 of his final 17 service points.
In the last two months, Isner has toppled three of the world's top six-ranked players — defeating No. 3 Roger Federer on the red clay of Fribourg in the February first round and edging No. 1 Novak Djokovic in last month's Indian Wells' semifinals — and surrendered serve just four times in those three wins. This one may have been the biggest of all.
"It was very huge. I've played a number of big matches this year and this is right up there. I had to play my best, really, this whole weekend," Isner told Davis Cup.com's Craig Gabriel.
Team play inspires Isner, a former all American at the the University of Georgia, and after silencing the French faithful again today to set up a semifinal showdown with Spain he soaked in the moment with his teammates embracing each member of the American squad with those long, elastic arms. Long John closed an impressive show standing simultaneously as both buzz killer and giant thriller depending on what colors you wore.