Short Points, Long Matches

by: Peter Bodo | May 31, 2013

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PARIS—Ryan Harrison broke the first commandment of tennis for anyone playing John Isner, that being Thou Shalt Not Allow Your Serve to be Broken—not when Isner is almost sure to hold his, time after time.

Then he broke the first commandment of tennis for anyone playing anyone at anytime, that being: Thou Shalt Not Double Fault Away a Break Point—especially not with the match on the line, as it was at 6-all in the fifth set of this Court 7 epic played under roiled skies with a chilly breeze ruffling the newly minted leaves on the trees behind the court.

As a result, Harrison suffered a painful five-set defeat over the course of three hours and 50 minutes, as Isner won a five-set match after being down by two sets for the first time in his career, 5-7, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-1, 8-6. The win filled Isner with relief and gratitude, for he also had lost in five sets at all four of last year’s Grand Slam tournaments—a record of frustration that would be enough to spook even a Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.

“I played well in 2012, but that really was a tough pill to swallow for me, to lose in five sets at every single Slam last year,” Isner said afterward. “This one helps, and I really do think it will help me going forward, because I’ll be probably in some more five-set matches later on.”

Isner probably owes Harrison an (energy) drink or something for helping him get over that five-set hump, because the 21-year old, No. 92 ranked opponent played a few sloppy service games at the worst of times, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.

Harrison looked over-matched from the start in a number of ways, starting with the nine inches of height he was giving way to his 6’9” countryman. Long John was dressed for the occasion in a signature, conservative Lacoste kit. Harrison, though, wore blue-gray plaid shorts (the Parisians just love it when Americans come to town!) and a long-sleeved black jersey under his navy blue tennis shirt. His invitation obviously read “Come as you are. . .” And he did.

But he soon had bigger things to worry about, as Isner began to unload those flat and kick serves that leave marks that sometimes look more like craters in the soft red clay. Isner had a couple of break points in the fourth game but failed to convert; Harrison then allowed Isner to escape from a 0-40 hole in the next game, and then all went calm for a spell. But at 5-all, Harrison played a magical point—how else can you describe a successful lob over Isner’s head?—to break, and he then served out the first set.

In the second set, we wandered into the horse latitudes that are prominently marked on the chart of any Isner match. This is a guy who specializes in playing short points but long matches. Because of how well Isner serves, and how ineffectively he sometimes returns, your eyes can glaze over and you might even doze off a bit as the games slip by, no break point interrupting the empty horizon. The only solution for these Isner-ish standoffs is the tiebreaker.

We had one of those shootouts in the second set, and it was well played by both men, with no mini-breaks until the eighth point, when Harrison tagged a pretty, down-the-line backhand passing shot. Although he failed to consolidate that advantage, he went on to take the tiebreaker with an inside-out forehand winner, 9-7.

The lead was two sets to none, but Isner is a little like one of those old Spanish galleons. It takes an awful long time to turn him around, but once it’s done and he’s headed in the right direction, watch out! He broke a racquet in frustration early in the third set, but it was just a moment of pique rather than a gesture of surrender. Still, it was surprising to hit the lone turning point in the match just two games later.

At 1-2, Harrison played a weak game to fall behind love-40, and gave up the game when his backhand response to Isner’s service return fell wide. That was all Isner needed, although he broke again in the ninth game to seal the set.

“Whenever you’re up two sets like that,” Harrison would say later, “and the guy breaks a racquet and you’re starting to feel like you’re on top, it’s not a time to hit cruise control. It’s a time that you hit the gas pedal and try to bury them. I might have just gotten a little too relaxed on my service games because I hadn’t been broken yet, and I was feeling pretty comfortable in baseline rallies and definitely dictating.”

The dictating would come to a sudden end, pronto. Isner suddenly had the wind at his back. His serve always has snap, but now his forehand and backhands had sting, and he played some of the longest rallies I’ve ever seen him engaged in. When he didn’t win them, they still seemed to have the effect of making him feel he was in it. He broke Harrison early in the fourth and added another insurance break for 6-1. I’m not sure how many players have ever beaten Isner after giving up four breaks in two sets; I have a feeling it’s a low number.

The match would end on a repeat note, but a heartbreaking one nonetheless. Harrison saved five break points in a marathon 11th game to forge ahead 6-5. But after Isner hit three winners and an ace to hold, Harrison had little resistance left. He won the first point of the 13th game, but fell behind 15-40 and coughed up that woe-inducing double fault a point later—after which Isner wrapped it up with a solid hold, 8-6.

“Getting broken there at the end, I missed a forehand, kind of a rally ball, then a double fault on break point, just other some things like that throughout the games that I got broken—those are all things under your control,” Harrison said, ruefully. “Against John , you’re never going to have a game where you feel like, ‘Oh man, he just played too good and broke me.’ Because the way he plays you get a little bit of breathing space on your serve, too. So I guess that was the mistake there.”

“It was a tale of two matches,” Isner’s coach Mike Szell suggested afterward. “Ryan was pretty much in charge there in the first couple of sets, but it turned around pretty quickly when John began to hit through the court. He did a good job keeping that pressure on right to the end there.”

That mandate to “hit through the court” will loom large in Isner’s mind before he meets quicksilver Tommy Haas in the next round, because clay giveth and clay taketh away. Isner knows that. He reasoned: “I don’t really think it takes away much on my serve. Maybe takes away on my groundstrokes a little bit. These guys are able to run balls down on clay, whereas on grass or faster hard court they probably would not be able to. But at the same time it gives me a lot of time to go for my shots and it’s just a matter of me executing out there.”

In other words, Isner has some commandments of his own that he’’ll have to observe to survive going forward.

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