It’s been a summer of disappointment for John Isner, who entered the heart of the tennis calendar with great expectations. The American posted early-season wins in high-stakes matches against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, only to follow up with early-round exits at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. So it was fitting if not surprising that Isner, on this final weekend of the summer, came up short, this time against David Ferrer in Spain, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 6-2.
The blueprint to beating Isner is as straightforward as how Isner beats his opponents. Where Isner looks for a one-two uppercut with his serve and forehand, his adversaries need to do three things: Return as well as possible, hold their own serve, and keep the big man out there—both in longer points and longer matches. Ferrer did the first two things so well that the final step of the process wasn’t even necessary. After a 61-minute opening set, the Spaniard rolled through each of the remaining three sets in under 45 minutes, capitalizing on his break-point chances each time. Ferrer went 2 for 2 in the second set, 1 for 1 in the third, and 2 for 6 in the decider. Throughout that same stretch, Isner earned just four break points, converting just one.
As we’ve seen on numerous occasions this year, Isner has had trouble closing out matches that go five sets—did he make a deal with the devil to win the 183-game epic? That tells me he is susceptible to fatigue, of course, but also that Isner experiences trouble dealing with the momentum swings inherent in longer duels. Isner’s three impressive road scalps in Davis Cup this year—against Federer, Tsonga, and Gilles Simon—all were accomplished in four sets or less. Once Isner finds his groove, it’s hard to shake him out of it—as Ferrer discovered in the first set, despite leading by a break at 3-1. But if Isner gets rattled, it takes some time for him to get back on track, if at all.
Today’s match featured one notable swing: After losing the first-set tiebreaker, Ferrer navigated through a tough opening game to hold serve, after which I asked myself if Ferrer, and not Isner, would succumb to the many miles he’s put on recently and in 2012 as a whole. But Isner was broken in the very next game, and he was hardly the same player from that point on. Isner played the way he needed to play, as we were frequently reminded by Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, but only during his service games. Ferrer, who did well to mix up his service placement and speed, got away with more second serves than he should have, and was rarely on the receiving end of rallies. After one missed return early in the fourth set, Isner was left to throw his racquet to the ground, strike his strings with his hands, and perhaps wonder where this season of promise went wrong.
In the end, we must remind ourselves that facing Ferrer on clay is not a good matchup for anyone (OK, maybe Rafael Nadal), let alone Isner. The late-bloomer should be commended for his 2012 upsets as much as he’s been criticized for his 2012 shortcomings. To puncture the highest echelons of the sport and prevail in its biggest events, Isner will likely need to add something to his one-dimensional game. But we could say the exact same thing about Ferrer, the man who seems permanently encased behind the tour’s upper crust. It was a battle of limitations today, as well as nations. Spain moves on to the Davis Cup final, where it will travel to either Argentina or the Czech Republic.