The tallest ATP final in history escalated into the longest three-set final of the year.
Managing the minute margins — and crucial moments — with more clarity, a defiant John Isner fought off 11 break points, including two match points to force the final tiebreaker, trimming Kevin Anderson, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) in today's Atlanta final.
It was billed as a battle of big servers and did not disappoint as the 6-foor-10 Isner delivered 24 aces and the 6'8 Anderson countered with 21 aces in producing the first ATP final without a service break since Milos Raonic beat Janko Tipsarevic in the Chennai final in January of 2012.
Isner generates more juice on his electric serve, but Anderson's return game is more dependable, his two-handed backhand a bigger weapon and he leaned on it in the first-set tie breaker.
Isner sailed a forehand down the line beyond the baseline to give Anderson the mini-break and a 4-3 lead. The South African blasted a backhand winner crosscourt — his 17th winner of the set — then attacked behind a body serve, drawing a netted response to earn his third set point at 6-3. Greeting a 129 MPH serve with bad intentions, Anderson cracked a return right back at Isner's feet. The big man danced backward while scattering a forehand wide as Anderson grabbed the opening set in 52 minutes, snapping Isner's streak of 12 consecutive tie break victories.
Both men erased break points with aces in the second and third games of the second set. Isner's forehand is his best groundstroke, but it failed him at a couple of critical moments in the second. At 4-3, 30-all, Isner had a good look at a mid-court forehand, he gave it a ride but missed it wide down the line and Anderson's ace leveled at 4-all. Predictably, it took the tiebreak to create separation as Anderson cracked, wailing a wild backhand deep then netting a crosscourt backhand as Isner earned a 5-2 lead before scooping a running forehand pass up the line for set point before closing. It was the 20th set the two old college rivals had played in their pro careers and 11 of them had been decided in breakers.
In the second game of the finale, Anderson earned triple break point and had looks at two second serves. On the first he netted a backhand return, punctuating the miss barking an anguished "No!" before steering a backhand pass up the line that landed wide. Isner fended off the third break point with an ace and saved a fourth with an ace, eventually holding for 1-all.
Neither man could drag the other to deuce on serve in the decider until Isner faced match point serving at 5-6. Fueled by adrenaline, Isner super-sized his serve, blasting a 143 MPH ace to erase it. Successive probing forehands from Anderson earned a second match point, this time on a second serve, but Anderson, whose two-hander was so solid throughout the match, blinked and sent a backhand long as Isner silenced the threat. The final tie breaker proved to be a heart-breaker for Anderson, who couldn't shake off lost opportunities and had to face the ATP's most imposing tie break player with the title on the line.
Energized, Isner ran around his backhand return while Anderson's toss was in the air and cracked a forehand return down the line to gain the mini-break and followed with an ace for a 2-0 lead. Isner never looked back, raising his tiebreak record to an ATP-best 26-7 in capturing his seventh career title in a win that will propel the 22nd-ranked American back inside the Top 20 tomorrow.