There once was a tennis player you could call the gunslinger. He held serve, again and again and again. Return games flew by off both sides. High noon came at 4-all. Here was the moment that separated the champs from the hopefuls. Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, John Newcombe, Pete Sampras. These men were unsurpassed at seizing the day precisely at that late stage moment. Often, doing so at crunch-time in one set so stunned and demoralized the opponent that it would propel the gunslinger to an early service break in the next.

The ascent of baseline-based tennis over the last 20 years has largely ended the gunslinger era. But this evening at Roland Garros, John Isner made a compelling case for it that nearly put him on the path to a sizable lead over fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas. In their third round match, Isner was up a set and held a break point at 3-3, 30-40 in the second. One point prior, Tsitsipas had double-faulted, the Greek clearly vexed by Isner’s consistent application of pressure, not just the familiar big serves, but frequent concussive forehands and a bevy of volleys, some struck hard, others feathered. But on that pivotal break point, Tsitsipas responded forcefully, lashing a sharp crosscourt forehand winner. Holding serve two points later, Tsitsipas broke Isner in the next game and soon evened the match.

The gunslinger turned back, Tsitsipas held steady and went on to win, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-1.

In the first set, Isner was worthy of the greats, deploying every contemporary tool, from swing shapes to strings to racquets and, of course, his 6’ 10” frame, to thoroughly impose himself on the clay and ostensibly take the racquet out of Tsitsipas’ hands. Serving in the first set at 4-5, 15-all, Isner won eleven straight points to go up 7-5. All told in that opener, Isner won 20 of 22 of his first serve points and was ten of eleven at the net. It was a textbook example of not letting the opponent even play. Recall that Isner is one of only two men to have extended Rafael Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros.


Tsitsipas held steady and went on to win, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-1.

Tsitsipas held steady and went on to win, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-1.

The anguish from Tsitsipas’ end was noticeable. He yelled at himself and sulked as he witnessed one Isner salvo after another fly by. But Tsitsipas also dug in and began to find his own solutions, most of all looking for ways to more effectively return Isner’s serve. Tsitsipas was also aided by the mist and sprinkles that made the balls heavier and gave him a few extra nanoseconds to handle Isner’s power. Even then, through the third set, neither Isner or Tsitsipas earned a break point.

As it must come in all Isner matches, a tiebreaker proved telling. To capture Isner’s serve in a set requires at least four good return points. But in a tiebreaker, one will do. Tsitsipas grabbed it rapidly. With Isner serving at 1-2, Tsitsipas dipped a backhand crosscourt return that elicited a netted volley. Guarding his mini-break led like a mother hen, Tsitsipas continued to win serve points and was granted an extra cushion of a lead when Isner made the odd choice to try a drop shot at 3-5 that missed badly. Tsitsipas won the next point.

The cord snapped, Tsitsipas soared, Isner sagged – and that was pretty much the end. Tsitsipas broke to start the fourth set. Having finally wrestled Isner’s A-game down to earth, Tsitsipas dominated, smothering his opponent with footwork, movement and energy.

Can Stefanos Tsitsipas win his first major? He’s been in the semis of his last two. Last fall at Roland Garros, Tsitsipas lost a five-setter to Novak Djokovic. At the Australian Open, he was beaten in straight sets by Daniil Medvedev. Should Tsitsipas and Medvedev win their round of 16 matches on Sunday (Tsitsipas versus Pablo Carreno Busta, Medvedev against Cristian Garin), they’ll meet in the quarterfinals. Medvedev has won six of their seven matches. But as Tsitsipas learned tonight versus Isner, it’s best not to think too far ahead. High noon will arrive soon enough.