Facing Isner, Del Potro turned potential marathon into quick sprint

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Juan Martin del Potro is starting to get hot at the right time. (Anita Aguilar)

PARIS— “It feels good, because I have control of the game, and I can do whatever I want, and that’s very important for myself.”

So said Juan Martin del Potro, in his trademark raspy monotone, after one of his straight-set demolitions late last week. Most of us, I’m guessing, will just have to take his word on what it feels like to be able to do whatever you want on a tennis court.

One thing we thought we could say with certainty, though, was that it wouldn’t all come so easily for Delpo in his fourth-round collision with fellow big man John Isner on Monday. Contemplating that potentially epic rock fight, we had visions of mind-numbing marathons and endless fifth sets past. Would their match finish Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday? Could we petition Roland Garros for an emergency fifth-set tiebreaker?

Coming in, Del Potro and Isner had been as dominant as anyone in the men’s draw not named Nadal. Delpo had dropped one token set in his opener, while Isner had yet to be broken. While the Argentine led their head to head 6-4, the American had won their last two meetings. At the start, Isner appeared to be in similarly sharp form today. With Del Potro serving at 1-2, Isner fired off a pair of inside-out forehand winners to go up 0-30. But then, in a moment of foreshadowing, Isner overhit a second-serve return long, and Delpo fired off three straight winners of his own to hold.

WATCH: Match point from del Potro's win over Isner at Roland Garros:

That dynamic—Isner overhitting, Del Potro hitting the corners—would define the rest of the match. At 3-3 in the first set, down break point, Isner sent a backhand over the baseline. Up a break point at 1-0 in the second set, he sent another backhand long. At 3-3 in the second, he took big swings, shanked two forehands, and was broken. And at 4-5 in the third set, with half a chance to break and stay alive, Isner overhit two more forehands to end the match. He had been making these shots earlier in the tournament; today, faced with a Top 5-level opponent, he pressed just enough to miss them.

As for Del Potro, he dealt with the Isner serve intelligently. He began deep in the court, did whatever he could to make the return, even if it had to be high and short, and then raced forward to try to take command of the rally. Throughout the match, he also showed off his greater comfort on clay, as he slid into passing shots and used his backhand slice to keep the ball as low as he could against the 6’10" Isner.

By the second set, Delpo was in total, laid-back control of the scene in Court Suzanne Lenglen. Early in the second, he began a joking conversation with Isner at the net, before casually firing off a service winner to save a break point. After he was finished arguing with the chair umpire over a call that had gone against him, Delpo gave him a friendly slap on the back. When Isner chased down a lob and hit a twisting forehand past him at the net, Del Potro put his hands on his hips and shot the American a “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. Finally, in the last game, at 0-15 and 30-30, fighting off a desperate Isner who was just a couple of points from getting himself back in the match, Del Potro put two inside-out forehands on the sidelines for crucial, match-closing winners.

The epic rock fight turned out to be a routine and symmetrical one: 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 59 minutes, with one break in each set. We can only guess that Delpo felt good when it was over, because he did whatever he wanted to out there today.

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