LONDON—When Dudi Sela completed his five-set, second-round victory on a sultry Thursday afternoon at the All England Club, he raised both of his arms up high and tossed his racquet skyward. On the Y-axis, Sela’s defeated opponent, John Isner, probably still stood taller than either the clenched fists or the airborne frame.
The gap in size between Sela, 5’9”, and Isner, 6’10”, is only the most obvious difference among these tour veterans. Isner’s primary weapon is his giant serve—both his first and second deliveries have tormented his playing colleagues since he arrived on the scene 10 years ago. Sela’s primary weapon is his one-hander, and any discussion of tennis’ greatest backhands must include his signature shot. If Isner inflicts damage with power, Sela does so with placement, but by no means is this backhand lacking for speed. Opponents need to guess when attempting to return both Isner’s searing serve and Sela’s backhand, for the diminutive dynamo can change direction with his versatile stroke an in instant.
The differences go on, down the direction each man wore their white caps. But in truth, there may be no two professional tennis players with more similarity than Isner and Sela—because few professional tennis players get as much out of their games as they do.
Isner, who has beaten Roger Federer in a best-of-five set match in Switzerland, twice defeated Novak Djokovic on hard courts and is one of two players to have ever played a fifth set against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, is lampooned for his game by casual fans and media personalities. He is said to own one shot, and one shot only, in a sport that demands an array of skills to qualify for Grand Slam tournaments—let alone reach the Top 10, rarefied air that this southern skyscraper has touched. And while Isner’s serve is the primary reason for all of these accomplishments, he wouldn’t be close to where he is without his remarkable stamina. You only need to recall his 183-game SW19 trilogy, played on a court not unlike Court 12, where he faced Sela today.
While Sela ultimately outlasted Isner on this day—6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3—it was less a result of the American’s shortcomings and more a celebration of the Israeli’s savvy and shotmaking. While returning serve, Sela raised his racquet over his head to repel Isner’s darts, like a lacrosse player intercepting a live ball. It’s a tactic that would work for almost no other player, and if these two were playing on slower, higher-bouncing clay, as opposed to faster, lower-bouncing grass, it might have proved a greater challenge to maneuver.
That wasn’t the only instance of Sela’s impeccable timing. His backhand, with its sizable take-back, required years of practice to perfect—and a colossal level of execution to combat Isner’s massive, unsung forehand. Sela’s mastery of one of the game’s fundamental shots, and his ability to extract the most value from all the others, is the reason he’s still competing in majors at 32, the reason he’s cracked the Top 30 (back in 2009) and the reason he’ll move on to face Grigor Dimitrov for a place in the second week of Wimbledon. Sela has won 46 fewer matches than he’s won in the pros (130-176), but no one can say that he isn’t maximizing his potential. Bernard Tomic he is not.
Isner, who was two points away from advancing at 5-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker, was left to fits of frustration after being taken the distance. “It’s fine,” he explained to his team on the sideline after Sela held a service game that featured a chalk-grazing backhand winner and a whipping crosscourt pass. The belief had been drained from the big man. “Whole match, every big point,” Isner later uttered after failing to convert a break chance at 2-4 in the fifth. Deflated in the deciding set, Isner earned two final break chances at 3-5, but a missed low volley sealed his fate.
Isner and Sela aren’t the only players who have gotten the most out of their games, but they may be the best examples of a large and small player. That leaves medium—and an averaged-sized 30-something with a decidedly un-average game comes to mind.
Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are all great talents, but as decorated as their résumés are, it’s hard to argue for anyone but Federer when it comes to this conversation. He’ll turn 36 in just over a month, and as grass-court tennis goes, he’s playing it like he’s 25, when he won Wimbledon for the fifth consecutive year.
But as pristine as Federer’s shots are on the court, it’s what he’s been doing off the court that might be the biggest reason for his continued excellence.
“Roger’s off days were about doing whatever he needed to do for his tennis,” Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach, told me just before Wimbledon. “A lot of people become borderline obsessive compulsive, becoming overwrought with sticking to a routine. Roger’s not really like that, and I think that’s a key to his longevity.”
Still, what 14,979 Centre Court ticket-holders witnessed, as the radiant sun gave way to a pleasant British summer evening, will also be accepted as evidence of Federer’s unrivaled grip of this challenging game. It was his defense—forever the most underrated part of the Swiss’ style—seen most aggressively with his many running, counterpunching forehands. It was his net play, both in carved volleys and creativity under duress, that reveals the baklava-level layers of skill he possesses. It was the ability to take Dusan Lajovic’s best punches over the course of a break-free first set—and promptly win the ensuing tiebreaker 7-0. In 90 precise minutes, Federer won 7-6 (0), 6-3, 6-2; he'll face Mischa Zverev in the third round.
“When you look at Roger and what he’s done over this many years,” said Annacone, “it’s absolutely incredible.”
On a week of tennis that has seen lackluster efforts highlighted, Day 4 gave fans a refreshing taste of the opposite. On Centre Court and Court 12. From players small, medium and large. With their serves, their groundstrokes and their focus. There was monochromatic attire, but there was athletic diversity.
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