It’s not easy to hit more winners than your opponent, face no break points, and still lose a tennis match in straight sets. But that’s what John Isner did on Sunday in Cincinnati. Don’t be too hard on the man, though; there was an extenuating circumstance. He was playing Rafael Nadal.
This was a collision between the summer’s two hottest hard-court players. Isner had won the title in Atlanta, reached the final in D.C., and had beaten three Top 10 players, including world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, to get to the championship match in Cincy. Nadal came in with a 14-0 record on hard courts in 2013, a run that included wins over Djokovic in Montreal and Roger Federer in the Cincy quarterfinals.
The result of this clash of opposites was a 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3) win for Nadal, in a match that may have been even tighter than the very tight scores indicate. Isner, who fired three aces in the opening game, continued his hot streak with a nearly flawless first set—he cracked 27 winners and allowed just one of his service games to reach deuce. The American’s forehand, which he unleashed inside-out whenever he had the chance, was particularly lethal.
With Nadal serving at 5-6, the big man even threw in some excellent defense to reach 15-40—double set point. But just when Isner looked poised to cash in on his hard work, Nadal found an answer, one that was very familiar to Isner: The serve. On the next four points, Nadal hit two service winners and two aces, including a second serve that completely fooled Isner, to get out of the jam.
The subsequent tiebreaker passed in similar fashion. Again, Isner, who earned a third set point at 7-6, played well enough to knock on the door; again, Nadal, who wiped away that third chance away with a forehand winner, was the one who shut the door in the end. The crucial moment came at 8-8. Isner, given a chance to rip another inside-out forehand with his approach, instead went back at Rafa; on his next shot, he stoned a forehand volley into the net. Isner, as they say, had blinked. Nadal would win the set on the next point.
The pattern held in the second set: Isner reached the brink of success, only to be turned away by better play from Nadal. This time the American earned a break point at 3-3. This time, Rafa came back to hold in even more aggressive, and impressive, fashion. On break point, he followed a forehand to the net and won it with a tricky backhand drop volley from below the tape. At deuce, Nadal came forward again and finished the point with a sharp backhand volley. To complete the net-rushing trifecta, Nadal hit a forehand volley winner for the hold. Three key points, three times Nadal, a baseliner, found himself at the net, and three times he knew exactly what to do when he got there. In tight moments, Nadal is the rare player who can find just the right balance of aggression and margin.
And that’s a big reason he’s having what may be a career season. This title is Nadal’s first in Cincy and 9th of 2013 (in 11 finals). It moved him back to No. 2 heading into the U.S. Open, and left him at 53-3 for the year. He’s 15-0 on hard courts, traditionally his weakest surface, and he becomes just the second man to win five Masters titles in one season (Djokovic in 2011 was the other).
For Isner, the question is this: How much of his success in 2-of-3-set matches this summer will translate to 3-of-5 at the U.S. Open? The two formats have always been very different balls of wax for him. The question for Rafa is: Should we make him the favorite for the U.S. Open? The last three men to sweep the summer hard-court Masters events were Andre Agassi in 1995, Pat Rafter in 1998, and Andy Roddick in 2003. Rafter and Roddick went on to win the title in New York, while Agassi reached the final. So history says Rafa’s chances are good. Which leads to one more question: Is the tennis world ready for Rafael Nadal, King of Hard Courts?