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Steve Flink: Isner Carries U.S. Past France

4/9/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

At the highest levels of tennis, the inner game is every bit as significant as what happens out in public view. Every leading player brings a different technical skillset into the arena, follows his own path to success, and finds his own way of confronting challenges. But the critical link toward triumph among the finest players is supreme mental strength, deep self-conviction, and unwavering confidence. A great player must walk out on court for every battle convinced that he will prevail, believing he is in control of his own destiny, undaunted by the size of an opponent’s reputation. When the mind is strong, uncluttered and unshakable, a first rate competitor begins winning big matches he clearly would have lost in the past. He expects rather than hopes to win. He approaches every important match with calm assurance and high expectations.

Enter John Isner. The soon to be 27-year-old American is playing the best tennis of his life. He owns probably the greatest first and second serves in tennis today, one of the biggest and best forehands in the sport, an increasingly effective two-handed backhand, and a growing sharpness on the low volley that is awfully impressive. Isner is capable these days of blowing anyone in the world off the court, on any surface. In 2012 alone, he has toppled world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at Indian Wells on hard courts. Earlier in the year, he halted Roger Federer in the opening round of Davis Cup as the Americans knocked off the host nation Switzerland on indoor clay. And this past weekend, Isner was the driving force behind a 3-2 U.S. triumph over France outdoors on clay, upending the resourceful Giles Simon in straight sets on opening day, and sealing the quarterfinal victory for the Americans with a hard fought and well deserved four set win over world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

In seven sets over those two consequential singles matches, Isner lost his serve once on the red clay abroad, and that is no mean feat. But let’s focus first on his triumph over Tsonga, which was remarkably revealing. The U.S. was ahead 2-1. Isner recognized that teammate Ryan Harrison would bear a big burden if he had to step out on court against the wily Simon with the two nations locked at 2-2. Victory for Harrison would not have been out of the question, but Simon would have had a considerable edge with all of his experience. The view here is that Isner fully realized that it would be up to him to put his nation into the semifinals of Davis Cup. He realized he had to get the job done, but knew that stopping Tsonga would require a top of the line performance.

From the outset, Isner seemed entirely composed and eager to assert his authority, while Tsonga played as if he was uncomfortable in the role of keeping his nation alive in the competition. At 3-3 in that pivotal opening set, Isner was taken to deuce on his serve by a determined adversary, but the American aced Tsonga wide in the deuce court and then released a viciously struck kick first serve for another ace in the ad court. Thus Isner moved to 4-3. In the eighth game, Tsonga was totally ill at ease. A pair of forehand unprovoked mistakes put the Frenchman down 0-30. He aced Isner down the T for 15-30, but then Tsonga lost not only his serve but also his nerve. At 15-30, he double faulted into the net. On the following point, sensing that Isner was running around his backhand for a trademark flat forehand return, Tsonga double faulted long. Those consecutive double faults gave Isner a 5-3 lead. The American connected on three of four first serve in the ninth game, holding at love with an ace out wide at 40-0. Isner had captured three crucial games in a row to seal the set, taking ten of the last eleven points.

Both men performed with distinction in the second set, pushing each other to the hilt all the way through. Tsonga gamely saved a break point in the opening game, stepping up the pace on his crosscourt forehand to rush Isner into an error. In the second game, Isner alertly saved a break point on his delivery. Tsonga’s return seemed to clip the baseline, taking an irregular bounce. Isner managed to steer a forehand back into play, and Tsonga overcooked a forehand. Isner held on for 1-1. Yet the tone had been set, and both players were releasing their best stuff simultaneously. Serving at 1-1, Tsonga was troubled again, falling behind 15-40. But the athletic Frenchman held on steadfastly for 2-1.

Both men kept probing. With Tsonga serving at 4-4, Isner garnered another break point, but Tsonga sent a well-disguised first serve down the T that was unmanageable for the American. Tsonga held on for 5-4. With Isner serving at 5-6, it was Tsonga who came within striking distance of breaking for the set. Isner was down 0-30, but he promptly aced Tsonga wide to the forehand. He would eventually hold from deuce to reach the tie-break. Isner, of course, had a set in hand, and less pressure surrounding him in that sequence, but both men played that tie-break admirably.

Not a point went against the server until the Frenchman and American were knotted at 4-4. Tsonga missed his first serve, and Isner exploded with a thundering forehand down the line return winner off the second delivery. The American served at 5-4, came in on an inside-out forehand approach, and Tsonga erred on the passing shot. Now at double set point, Isner aced Tsonga down the T with one of his biggest serves of the match. Isner had two sets to love lead, but much work was left to be done. The American lost his rhythm on serve, and made less than 50% of his first serves in the third set, an inordinately low number for him. But he plodded on, exploiting the enormity of his second serve kicker to stay in the set.

Isner held from 15-40 in the third game, and looked likely to wrap up the match when he had a break point with Tsonga serving at 3-4. But the American left his return too short, and Tsonga rifled a forehand approach to the corner that was too much for Isner to handle. Isner had to save another break point himself at 4-4, but at 5-5 he missed six out of ten first serves, and double faulted at break point down. Tsonga had competed with passion and purpose. He served out the set at 6-5, and had some nice momentum on his side heading into the fourth set.

Perhaps the Isner of years gone by might have faltered at this stage, but not the Isner of 2012. At 30-30 in the opening game of the fourth set, he served a timely ace, and then held at 30. At break point in the following game, Isner steered a few balls deep, and Tsonga pulled a forehand inside-in wide, somewhat in exasperation. There was no real opening; he had simply overplayed his hand. Isner had the break for 2-0 in the fourth and never really looked back. He served two aces in a love game for 3-0. An ace carried Isner to 4-1 as he held at love again. In holding for 5-2 at 15, Isner closed the game with an ace. Serving for the match at 5-3, Isner was absolutely unstoppable, holding at love to complete a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3 victory. He won 20 of 23 points on serve in the fourth set.

It had been a first rate performance from Isner. His combination of power and control off the forehand was uncanny. Isner was sounder from the backcourt, and the pace of his forehand was too much for Tsonga, who started pressing with growing frequency during the match. Isner’s inside-out forehand always kept Tsonga off balance, and he gave himself many more opportunities to attack than the Frenchman. Isner was always springing forward to jump on short balls off the forehand, and the barrage of big shots he played off that side was more than Tsonga could handle. Moreover, Isner implemented the sidespin forehand drop shot with regular success, keeping Tsonga constantly off balance with that clever tactic. His touch was exemplary.

It was Isner, of course, who put the Americans on course to stop France. Ryan Harrison had played an impressive match with Tsonga to open the proceedings. The 19-year-old American took the third set from Tsonga before bowing in four, but the 7-5, 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 score does not do justice to the quality of Harrison’s play. Then Isner took the court to face Simon in a “must win” match. Simon had lost a hard fought, four set match to Isner on hard courts last year at the U.S. Open, and had taken the American to 7-5 in the final set of their most recent showdown at Indian Wells.

Although Simon is an excellent player on any surface, the view here is that he is markedly better on hard courts than he is on clay. He doesn’t have the firepower to make the penetrating shots he needs to conclude points on clay, while the hard courts add some pace to his ground game. Be that as it may, Isner was stupendous in this contest. In the third game of the match, despite missing nine of twelve first serves, Isner still held on for 2-1. He broke Simon in the following game with a scorching flat forehand return winner down the line. Despite struggling to serve the set out at 5-3 in a two deuce game, Isner took the set, 6-3.

In the second set, Isner served decidedly better than he had in the first. He won 16 of 19 service points, broke Simon twice, controlled the tempo with his forehand, and broke the Frenchman twice to win the set convincingly, 6-2. Only in the third was Isner severely challenged. At 4-5, 30-40 he was set point down. He missed his first serve, but when Simon’s second serve return landed relatively short, Isner stepped in and cracked a forehand winner unhesitatingly. From the safer territory of 5-5, Isner raised his game markedly. At break point in the eleventh game, he came forward, made a good pick-up backhand half volley, and lunged for an arduous backhand drop volley. Simon tracked that shot down, but Isner took one step back and easily rolled a two-handed backhand out of reach for a winner. Serving for the match at 6-5, he held at love, closing that game out with an ace and a neatly executed forehand passing shot winner down the line.

Isner’s 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 dismissal of Simon buoyed the spirits of the Bryan brothers, who took apart the French duo of Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau. The left-handed Bob was his usual stellar self in the deuce court, while Bob was the best man on the court, returning brilliantly from the ad court. The Americans never faced a break point, and marched deservedly to a 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory. The Bryans were terrific. Their command on the volley, their tactical acumen and their high quality returns were outstanding. It was a joy to watch them performing at near peak efficiency. Their win set the stage for Isner to clinch victory for the U.S, which he did stylishly. It hardly mattered that Simon beat Harrison in the “dead rubber” at the end.

The feeling grows that Isner is on his way to a much bigger year than many of us anticipated, although he is apparently not surprised by the speed of his progress. I remember watching him take a set off Federer in the summer of 2007 at the U.S. Open as a rookie professional, after reaching the final of Washington less than two months earlier. In 2009, he celebrated his first substantial win at a major, ousting Andy Roddick in five sets at the U.S. Open. Isner took the first and fifth sets of that contest in clutch tie-breaks, which was a clear sign of things to come. Early in 2010, Isner played an excellent five set match against Novak Djokovic in Davis Cup at Serbia on indoor clay, and then last year he pushed eventual champion Rafael Nadal into a tumultuous five set clash in the opening round of the French Open.

All of those high points led Isner to his current station as a player who has cracked the top ten in the world and will inevitably end the year entrenched in that elite company. To be sure, he will still lose to some players he ought to be able to handle. Jurgen Melzer ushered Isner out of Memphis, and after Indian Wells, Isner was stopped in Miami by Florian Mayer, probably because the American was exhausted after his exploits in California. Isner lost the Indian Wells final to Federer after his stunning win over Djokovic.

My view of Isner is evolving. I was astonished by his poise in beating Federer on indoor clay in a career altering Davis Cup match. I watched him strike down Djokovic on those California hard courts as he came through under extreme pressure to win the first and third sets in tie-breaks. I saw him strike down Simon and Tsonga last weekend with verve and coolness under fire. He keeps moving above and beyond himself toward greatness. This much is certain: John Isner will be the game’s most compelling player outside the esteemed top four for the rest of 2012, and by far the biggest threat to the security of those established stalwarts all year long. He now has the psyche, spirit and drive of a champion. Isner looks and behaves like a superstar these days, and expects to beat anyone he confronts under any circumstances.

The inner game of John Isner is extraordinary.