Indian Wells: Hewitt d. Isner

by: Peter Bodo | March 09, 2013

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Lleyton Hewitt celebrated the 10th anniversary of his last triumph at Indian Wells in a fitting way for this indefatigable, irrepressible, indomitable, 32-year-old veteran of five surgeries in the past four years. He upset 15th-seed John Isner in a second-round encounter with a gritty, disciplined, three-set win, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4.

When Hewitt won this tournament in 2003, he was at the peak of his power. His final victim was another former No. 1, Gustavo Kuerten, who won just two games from the Aussie. This win may not be as resonant, but Hewitt crafted it with the same combination of qualities and the same conspicuous joie d’combat. He punctuated points he won at critical junctures what that familiar, “Come Awwwwwwn!” yell and those signature fist pumps, which make him look rather like a guy yanking on the pull-cord of a recalcitrant lawn mower.

Isner is 6'9". You don’t mow him short as much as you chop him down. And as Hewitt and any logger can tell you, the bigger the tree, the longer it takes for it to fall. But even a redwood is hardly a match for a guy with the stamina, strength, and will to just keep hacking away.

At the outset, it looked pretty grim for Hewitt, who’s now barely inside the Top 100 at No. 98. Isner's massive serve was on point—by the ninth game (his fifth serving turn), he had seven aces. While that big serve protected Isner, Hewitt’s mobility and counter-punching ability—especially his talent for finding a way back into a point via excellent defense—vouchsafed his own service games. Neither man had a break point going into the tiebreaker.

Last year, Isner won 41 of 59 tiebreakers, the most of any man in a quarter of a century. He went into this one 7-0 on the year, and once again came through. He wasted two set points, but won his serve for 7-6. Then he gambled and stepped around a Hewitt second serve in the ad-court to tag a sizzling forehand service return winner from outside the tramline.

Hewitt, showing the resilience that marked his tenure as a top player, was undeterred. He held the first game of the second set and raced out to a 40-15 lead in Isner’s next service game. Isner battled back to deuce, but Hewitt broke him with an inside-out forehand winner and a forehand approach that forced a forehand error.

From that point on, the shortcomings in Isner’s game became increasingly obvious. As big as his forehand is, it can be unpredictable and imprecise. He hit far too many of those shots hard, but closer to the service line across the net than the baseline. His footwork occasionally became sloppy. He began to rely too heavily on his serve, while finding no solutions to Hewitt’s well-placed, 110 M.P.H. deliveries.

Isner did a good job holding a very long eighth game (serving at 2-5) staving off three set points. He seemed to find new life after that, and reached his first break points of the match against Hewitt’s serve after his own hold—thanks partly to two unexpected double faults that perhaps showed just how much this match meant to Hewitt. But Isner made unforced errors on both his break points, and Hewitt bagged the set soon thereafter when the American made a backhand error.

The momentum had shifted for good. Isner survived a break point in the fifth game of the third set to go up 3-2, and had a break point of his own in the next game. Hewitt dispatched it with a clever off-speed first serve to Isner’s backhand.

The Aussie scored the critical break in the next game in classic fashion, jumping on a casual cross-court forehand volley by Isner at deuce to win the point with a pass. Isner saved the break point with a smash, but Hewitt speared back the next serve to tease out a backhand error. He then played great defense to stay in a rally and ultimately force a forehand error that won him the game, putting Hewitt up, 4-3.

Clearly dispirited, Isner let Hewitt run away with the next game. And although the big man held to stay in it at 4-5, Hewitt was confident and determined. He began that 10th and final game with an ace and jumped out to 40-15. Isner staved off two match points and Hewitt, clearly nervous, presented him with a break point when Isner uncharacteristically won a 21-shot rally. Unfortunately—and this is a familiar tale by now—Isner squandered the ensuing break point when he failed to put a forehand service return into play.

Isner would save one more match point, but after another deuce, Hewitt clocked a cross-court forehand winner off a service return, and ended the match with a forehand blast off a second-serve return that caught Isner flat-footed.

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