On Sunday, John Isner was in Houston winning his first title of the year. Forty-eight hours later he was in Monte Carlo, facing Ernests Gulbis in a first-round match. For half an hour or so, it appeared that Isner’s momentum had made the trip across the Atlantic with him. He saved three break points in his opening service game, broke Gulbis a few minutes later, and a few minutes after that rocketed a forehand winner to take the first set 6-4.
But newfound confidence and the winds of momentum could only take Isner so far. By the second set, matter had begun to overcome mind. First, Isner’s body betrayed him; at 2-3, he called the trainer out to work on his right hip, which appeared to be bothering him from the start of the match. Soon after, Isner’s energy began to flag, and he lost the last four games of the second set. By the end of the set, reacting late to Gulbis’ shots and sending his own outside of camera range, Isner looked like he just wanted to get to the third.
But the big man was no better or livelier in the decider. At 0-1, he was broken at love on a wild forehand miss. While he hung on as long as he could, he never caught up. After an hour and 48 minutes, the American’s brief stay in Monte Carlo was over, and Gulbis had advanced 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.
While this match turned on Isner’s various physical issues, Gulbis fans should be happy to note that their man didn’t let it go or lose control, even when it appeared that he might. After being given a time warning by chair umpire Pascal Maria in his second service game, Gulbis was immediately broken. Predictably, he complained to Maria through the next two changeovers, even as he threw away another service game to go down 4-1. Less predictably, though, Gulbis didn’t throw away the set, or even his racquet. A winner at 1-4 brought a fist-pump and an uncharacteristic surge of positive energy. He narrowed Isner’s lead to one break and began building his own momentum.
Gulbis was similarly restrained, and successful, in the second set. With Isner serving at 2-3, Gulbis had a break point, but he missed an easy backhand pass by a few inches. Gulbis threw a glare at his coach and raised his arm as if he were going to send his racquet into the sea below. But he didn’t. He got back to business and eventually broke serve. The match could have been lost in that moment; instead, it was won.
From here, Isner will try to improve on his dismally disappointing clay swing of 2012. He showed that he can still do something on dirt in Houston. As for Gulbis, he moves on, mind and racquets intact, to play Juan Monaco.