INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—We knew coming into the semifinals on Saturday that one player would be living by his serve. That was John Isner, of course. What we didn’t know was that another player, Roger Federer, would be doing the same—not just living by his serve, but soaring by it.
Federer had what he called “one of the best serving days of my career” in his easy, breezy 6-3, 6-1, one-hour-and-one-minute semifinal win over Alexandr Dolgopolov here on Saturday. Federer made 72 percent of first balls, won 83 percent of points on his second serve, and hit seven aces. He hit two of those aces to hold for 3-2, and another to hold for 4-3. That was essentially all he needed, because from that point on, Dolgopolov watched his game blow away in the wind—or shrivel in the desert heat, take your pick. The Ukrainian was broken when he went for too much on a forehand at 3-4; at 5-3, Federer closed the set with, naturally, an ace. That must have been all Dolgo could take, because when the second set started, he came out in exhibition mode. Some highly illogical shot selection got him broken in the opening game, and he never challenged Federer again. Dolgo finished with a dismal 12 winners and 25 unforced errors in a substance-less, concentration-free performance.
“The main problem,” Dolgopolov said, “was I didn’t adjust to the conditions today as well as he did. I just missed too many shots today, the shots you don’t miss in these matches. It was flying a little bit. It was sunny, it was windy.”
Things were flying right for Federer, though he never needed to reach anything like full altitude to win this one. The only moment that could have been called key came with Federer serving at 3-all in the first set. He sent a mid-court forehand way long, and then went down 15-30 on a Dolgopolov winner; this was a tricky moment in these unpredictable conditions. On the next point, Federer was presented with another mid-court forehand. Would he go after this one, so soon after shanking the other? The answer was yes—he gave it a ride crosscourt and won the point. What might have turned into a crisis of confidence and a string of misses for Federer ended right there.
Federer said his serve helped both physically and psychologically.
“You save energy,” he said, “hitting one serve instead of two, and it makes it easier mentally when you get those points with your serve. It let me play a bit more free.”
Saving energy might prove to be crucial for Federer. He’ll play Novak Djokovic, who went three sets with John Isner this afternoon, on what’s expected to be another hot one on Sunday.
As for today, Federer’s recent words about the players outside the Big 4 sounded prescient. This week he was asked whether he believed their confidence was growing after Stan Wawrinka’s win at the Australian Open; Federer said he wouldn’t be impressed until they started winning consistently, and not just in “one-offs.” At the moment, Dolgopolov’s upset of Rafael Nadal on Monday looks like just that, a one-off. He didn’t appear to seriously believe he had a second one in him today.
Novak Djokovic was slightly perturbed in his warm-up session on Stadium 1 this morning. It wasn’t the fact that he couldn’t find anyone remotely close to 6’10”—the height of his opponent, John Isner—to hit with him. And it wasn’t the fact that the junior he did practice with couldn’t remotely approximate Isner’s kick, even while serving from five feet inside the baseline. Short of flying in the game's other giant, Ivo Karlovic, there’s really no way to simulate what you’re going to face from the big American.
What was bothering Djokovic was his forehand. He couldn’t find the range with his topspin on it; when he tried to flick over the ball, he smothered it. By the time Novak was done with his warm-up, the kinks seemed to be ironed out, but he was right to worry. Under pressure from Isner in their semifinal, Djokovic struggled with his forehand. It very nearly cost him the first two sets.
Pressure is the operative word when it comes to playing Isner, who has the most devastating serve in the game. It isn’t a tennis match so much as a psychodrama, one in which Isner always hold the trump card, and his opponent, even when he’s No. 2 in the word, can spend an entire match trying to rein in his frustrations.
“It’s very challenging,” Djokovic said of playing Isner, “because he doesn’t miss his serve too much, so you have to be able to hold your composure from the first to the last point and be ready to be three tiebreaks. That’s all.”
Right—that’s all. And avoid going insane in the process.
It isn’t just the aces that Isner hits that cause problems; it’s how that one shot affects everything else his opponent does. When you do get a look at a return, or get into a rally, the tendency is to play safe, because you feel like you must win that point when you have the chance. That in turn can take you out of your normal baseline game, which is what makes someone like Djokovic superior to Isner in the first place. Before you know it, you’re shanking balls you wouldn’t shank against anyone else.
“It’s a little too frustrating and emotional playing John,” Djokovic said today.
In the first set, Djokovic got plenty of looks at returns, but he couldn’t find the court with them. By 3-3, he had had enough; when yet another backhand return flew long on a big point, Djokovic leaned back and let out a primal scream at the sky. By 4-4, doubt had crept into Djokovic’s swing, and when he served to stay in the set at 4-5, his forehand broke down completely. He flicked over one and put it into the net for 0-30, then flicked over another and sent it long for 0-40. At set point, he shanked two forehands that somehow landed in the court. Djokovic went on to hold and, settling down again, break Isner to win the set 7-5.
“I was lucky to win the first set,” Djokovic said. “He should have won the first set, and I should have won the second set.”
Yes, about that second set, Novak. Who would have believed it would end with four straight breaks of serve? Who would have believed that Djokovic would have been broken twice while serving for a spot in the final? Who would have believed that Isner would outplay him in every aspect of the game, including the return of serve—especially the return of serve—in the tiebreaker?
It all started with the Djokovic forehand again. Serving for the match at 5-4, he moved in on the first point, set up for a mid-court forehand, and hooked it wide. From there Isner played a good game to break for 5-5, finishing with a huge return and volley winner. That return got into Djokovic’s head, because when he came out to serve for the match again at 6-5, he went for too much on his second serve and double-faulted. That was one blown chance too many. Isner went on a roll for the rest of the set, breaking at love and stomping through a 7-2 tiebreaker to level the match. The heat, the blown chances, the opponent: It was nightmare time for Djokovic.
The only problem for Isner was that he had stomped a little too hard at the end of the second set, and hurt his knee. Djokovic saw it, and took heart.
“I could see he was hurting some in the third set,” Djokovic said. “I just wanted to hang in there and take every opportunity I could.... I played a great third set.”
Despite his difficulties, Djokovic was happy with his day overall.
“I thought I returned really well,” he said, “and allowed myself a bunch of opportunities on his service games.”
As he said, Djokovic needed to hold his composure from first point to last, and he did. At the start of the third set, with the crowd, the heat, his opponent's game, and seemingly the fates against him, it would have been easy for Djokovic to throw it all away. Instead, he threw his racquet to the ground, picked it up, and got back to work.
He had managed not to go insane, and that was half the battle.