What began as an almost disappointingly transparent mismatch between Juan Martin del Potro and John Isner, two men with meat-and-potatoes games, took an astonishing turn shortly before what seemed an inevitable conclusion. As a result, Isner is in the Western & Southern Open final, and del Potro is left wondering how he let the 22nd-ranked American win by a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (9), 6-3 score.
Del Potro isn’t the only one puzzling over that.
The match was almost mesmerizing in its predictability for almost the entire first two sets. Right from the start, Isner was clearly out-gunned once the ball was in play, and he flirted with disaster in one service game after another. He was down 0-30 or 15-30 the majority of those games, but managed to salvage them somehow. But it was a bad sign for him that del Potro had no such problems.
Del Potro’s strategy seemed simple enough. When serving, he hammered away at Isner’s forehand, but he targeted the backhand during rallies. It was a simple but effective strategy, made easier by the fact that del Potro simply has been a better, more consistent player than Isner from the baseline—hence his 4-0 advantage in the head-to-head stats. And since Isner is only now just starting to attack the net as often as his big serve and his powerful forehand might allow, he was consistently outmaneuvered.
Still, Isner’s ability to protect his serve proved handy, and the set inevitably ended in a tiebreaker. That one was a thing of beauty: Both men served superbly, and there were no mini-breaks until del Potro took the set thanks to an excellent service return and forehand pass off Isner’s answering volley.
It did not seem an unjust end to the set, and the pattern continued in the second. In the fourth game, with del Potro leading 2-1, Isner dodged a break when he followed a double-fault that gave up a break point with a 138 M.P.H. ace. He went on to hold, but was his fingers were growing tired as he continued to hang over the precipice of a break. In the eighth game, those digits let go.
Isner dispatched one break point in that game with a service winner to the backhand, but he made a forehand error during a rally to give del Potro another break chance. Up to then, Isner’s volley had been extremely useful—an antidote to del Potro’s obvious superiority from the baseline. But it let him down on this occasion, as he buried one in the net after approaching behind his most dangerous shot, the inside-out forehand.
The break put del Potro up a set and a 5-3, with serve to come. The singular statistic up to that point was that Isner had seen not a single break point. There was no reason to assume he would see his first as del Potro stepped in to finish him off, but the No. 7 seed was clearly troubled by the sun when serving at that end of the court. He hit a double fault to keep Isner in the game, but worked his way to match point—whereupon he cracked another double fault.
Isner suddenly popped to life. He scored with a powerful forehand service return, and broke back to keep the match alive with a terrific, rally-ending, down-the-line backhand winner that made it 4-5.
The break replenished Isner’s spirits, and he allowed himself an uncharacteristically self-glorifying fist pump and shout of joy. In the next game, he hit an ace at 144 M.P.H., fully five miles faster than his previous best serve of the day. The question then became, “Can del Potro keep it together long enough to re-group and get into the tiebreaker?”
He managed the task, but the ensuing tiebreaker was a far cry from the first one. Del Potro kicked it off with a double fault, and Isner followed with an ace. But the errors flowed more freely than service winners or un-returnable forehands. Eight of the first 14 points were mini-breaks.
Del Potro never earned another match point in that tiebreaker, but he hung in there long enough to force Isner to try his hand at five different set points before he found the unexpected, winning formula. Leading 10-9, Isner held his own in a rally until he forced del Potro into a cross-court forehand error. It dictated a third set that had seemed an impossibility just 20 minutes earlier.
Any chance that del Potro would slough off that missed match-point opportunity and re-capture the commanding form he showed for most of the first two sets vanished shortly after Isner staved off three break points to hold the first game with an ace. In the next game, del Potro made some truly poor shot selections and looked not merely distracted but angry. There must have been a measure of disgust in the backhand he hit at break point, because it was a puzzling miss that gave Isner a 2-0 lead.
Looking more and more confident with his serve, Isner managed to stay on message and served it out without drama, converting his first match point when he hit a backhand approach shot that led del Potro to drill his backhand pass into the net.