Most times in a tennis match, a player is aware if he is or isn’t gaining traction. Rallies, points, games and sets give tangible signals of what’s occurred and, hopefully, if not conclusively, what’s to come. But when you play John Isner, clarity vanishes in the face of a playing style that, at its best, can leave the opponent feeling as muzzled as a first-time guest on a shock-jock radio show. Isner talks. You listen. And listen. And listen. When the time comes to open your mouth, you better speak clearly.

That was emphatically the case today when Isner and Dominic Thiem played one another in the quarterfinals of the Mutua Madrid Open. Only deep into the third set, Isner serving at 4-all, was Thiem able to take the lead that eventually earned him a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Thiem did it with grit, movement and his enchanting array. Serving at 4-all, 15-all, Isner went to a pet choice and feathered a drop shot. Thiem ran it down and carved a deft angled backhand crosscourt that Isner netted. At 30-all, Isner struck a reasonable forehand chip approach shot. Thiem’s reply was a vicious forehand pass. On the break point, Thiem tracked down an Isner crosscourt forehand volley and then closed out the rally with a sharp backhand pass that generated an Isner miscue. At last ahead, Thiem’s confidence soared, closing out the final game at 15 with a high forehand volley winner.

As much as the final score suggested tightness, the plotline of the match was quite the opposite. Isner broke Thiem at 0-1 and was thoroughly in control of the first set, at 5-3 rattling off four straight aces.

Describing Isner’s serve, Thiem said, “it's comparable, well, to a goalkeeper in a penalty. If he places it well, if it has the right speed, there's just no time to react. You either have to guess or hope that he's missing the first serve. It's just pure luck actually to return it.”

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Dominic Thiem steps up to Isner challenge, kickstarts clay ascendency

Dominic Thiem steps up to Isner challenge, kickstarts clay ascendency

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Then came the turning point. Compromised by being on the sunny side, Thiem served at 2-all, 15-40. Given how well Isner was backing up his serve—pinpoint deliveries, concussive forehands, nimble volleys – this was about as early a match point as a player will ever face. At 15-40, Isner just missed a forehand return long. On the next point, Thiem did what he does best, lashing a heavy and deep crosscourt forehand that led to an easy overhead winner. Twice more in that game, Thiem faced break point. Again, he fought back—and from deuce, won nine straight points to take seize the set.

As the third got underway, Thiem began to serve much better and nibble his way into Isner’s service games. Though Isner fought off a break point in the opening game of the decider and rallied at 2-all from love-30 down, his own return quality dropped in the wake of Thiem’s improved play.

It’s been intriguing to witness Thiem’s 2021 clay court campaign. Usually by May, he has competed on at least three continents, a schedule that has left commentators such as myself wondering if Thiem is over-committed. But then, this year, coming into Madrid, Thiem had only played nine matches, winning just five. Madrid is his first clay event of ‘21. Was Thiem under-tennised?  He labored hard to beat Isner and Alex de Minaur.

Dominic Thiem steps up to Isner challenge, kickstarts clay ascendency

Dominic Thiem steps up to Isner challenge, kickstarts clay ascendency

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Thiem has also admitted that after earning the first Grand Slam title of his career last year at the US Open. he needed a bit of time off. But now he is back, in the semis of Madrid for the fourth time, presumably fresh and eager for Rome, a week off, and then the big push at Roland Garros, where Thiem has twice been a finalist. Based on as small a sample pool as what he showed versus Isner, Thiem will once again be a major contender for the title in Paris.

“I plan to play less tournaments. I hope that I still play a lot of matches, no?” Thiem said after today’s match.  “But I think that I just need little bit time off from time to time to regroup, to resettle. I think everybody does it. I mean, when I was 21, 22, my first years on tour, or 23, I also played week after week. You can deal with it, no? Now, with all the years of experience, I think I'm also able to play well after as long a break as I could see here now.”

Isner should also come away from Madrid fancying the possibilities Roland-Garros might hold for him. After all, he is one of only two men to have extended Rafael Nadal to five sets at that event (Novak Djokovic is the other). And amid the deregulation of the tennis calendar triggered by the pandemic, Isner too has been pragmatic about scheduling. He skipped the Australian Open and had only played three tournaments prior to Madrid, winning a scant four matches.

Notably, Isner’s looked fresh this week, particularly in earning third-set tiebreaker wins over a pair of formidable baseliners, ninth-seeded Roberta Bautista Agut and sixth-seeded Andrey Rublev. With less mileage heading into Paris, the 36-year-old Isner figures to be a dangerous floater there.

Dominic Thiem steps up to Isner challenge, kickstarts clay ascendency

Dominic Thiem steps up to Isner challenge, kickstarts clay ascendency