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Steve Flink: Monaco Brings Big Man Back Down To Earth

4/16/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

This column is both for and about Juan Monaco, a 28-year-old from Argentina, and a player who stands at a career high of No. 14 in the world after securing only his fifth career singles championship. Monaco toppled none other than John Isner in the final of the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston, halting one of the sport’s hottest players with a mature and crafty performance on the American clay. Monaco defeated the 6’9” American 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, and that triumph was no mean feat.

Isner, of course, was riding a considerable wave of confidence after leading the American Davis Cup team past France the weekend before Houston. He had taken apart both Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in impressive fashion, crushing Simon emphatically in straight sets, striking down the gifted Tsonga in four sets to seal a team victory for the Americans. Isner is celebrating the finest year of his career as he rapidly approaches the age of 27. He has claimed his first career wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. He is almost overflowing with confidence. He is a man entirely comfortable in his own skin, a competitor of growing self-awareness and potential, and an individual who expects to win every time he steps on the tennis court.

And yet, Monaco stopped the towering American very deservedly on a windswept afternoon in Texas. His ground game was first rate across the board. He served purposefully, crowding Isner with kick deliveries into the body, going out wide with strategic acumen, never allowing the American to settle into a comfortable rhythm on his returns. Moreover, Monaco was smart and resourceful with his return of serve positioning, standing fifteen feet or more behind the baseline, finding a way to work his way into the points as often as possible. Monaco was composed and sound, concentrated and solid, a wily veteran in full command of his game and surroundings.

Coming into 2012, Monaco had captured only three singles events across his entire career, but he has played some of the finest tennis this season. After an opening round loss at the Australian Open on hard courts, he shifted onto the clay of Vina del Mar in Chile and was victorious at that event. A few weeks ago, he had a terrific run in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open, ousting the Americans Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish before falling in the penultimate round against world No. 1 Djokovic. Monaco has clearly settled into his talent this year. He took a wild card into Houston, was seeded fourth, and won a tough semifinal contest from the American Michael Russell.

But he could have been forgiven had he been pessimistic about his chances against Isner. The American had won both of his previous career appointments with Monaco, including a recent victory at Indian Wells on the hard courts. Isner has been on such a good roll as of late that he seldom seems to doubt himself in the tight corners in nearly all of his contests. In Houston, he had held serve 44 consecutive times in his three matches leading up to the final. No one had broken him all week. And he extended that streak to 45 holds in a row to open up his meeting with Monaco in the championship match. Monaco had good reason to feel confident about how his game matched up with Isner’s in the wind on the clay, but breaking serve was going to be a serious issue.

Nevertheless, the Argentinian got the early break to move ahead 2-1 in the first set against the formidable American. At break point down in that important game, Isner drove a forehand approach shot into the net. Monaco swiftly advanced to 3-1 before Isner held with an ace in the fifth game. From that juncture, Monaco captured three games in a row. He held at 15 for 4-2 and then broke Isner at 30 for 5-2 as the American missed a two-hander up the line. Monaco served out the set unhesitatingly, taking it 6-2, leaving Isner a bit bewildered in the process.

But Isner predictably elevated his game at the outset of the second set, holding at love in the opening game. He then broke Monaco for the first time in the second game after five deuces. Isner was competing hard. He survived a five deuce game on his serve before holding for 3-0. But the difficult work was not over. Isner held with relative ease for 4-1, but he was stretched to seven deuces in the seventh game before holding with consecutive aces for 5-2. Two games later, serving for the set, Isner was given another thorough test by his determined adversary. The American saved a break point, was taken twice to deuce, but finally held on with one of his customary high, kicking second serves to the Ad Court. Monaco tried to run around his backhand, but the ball bounded up so high that the Argentine could not control an arduous forehand return.

It was one set all, and a surging Isner seemed—however tenuously—to have the upper hand. Early in the third, both men held relatively easily over the first four games. Monaco and Isner both dropped only two points on serve en route to 2-2. The pivotal moment was when Monaco served in the fifth game of the third set. Monaco double faulted to fall behind 15-40. Isner cracked a flat forehand return with interest. Monaco could only reflexively direct his backhand down the line, hoping for the best. His two-handed backhand landed improbably for a winner, just inside the sideline. Isner wore an incredulous expression, understandably baffled that he had not won the point. At 30-40, Monaco sent his first serve kicker into the body, drawing a backhand return error from Isner. Monaco held on gamely from there, building a 3-2 lead, thwarting Isner’s attempt to achieve a break that presumably would have allowed the American to take control of the match.

Nonetheless, Isner held on for 3-3 at 30 with a cleanly struck forehand winner. But Monaco was giving nothing away on his own serve. He held at 30 for 4-3 and looked for more opportunities. He found them. With Isner serving at 3-4, 30-30, the American’s approach shot was hit without authority. Monaco laced a backhand crosscourt pass that Isner could not handle. When he was break point down, Isner moved up to the net again, but his backhand drive volley went wide down the line. Although Monaco was clearly apprehensive when he served for the match at 5-3, he still managed keep his composure. At 5-3, 40-30, Monaco handled the propitious moment beautifully. Isner sent a forehand volley down the line, and Monaco totally anticipated that move. He had plenty of time to lace a backhand passing shot winner crosscourt.  Monaco triumphed 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

He is the second best player in his country, surpassed only by Juan Martin Del Potro.  He seems to have a better grasp now than ever before of how to exploit his talent. He concluded every year from 2009-2011 among the top 30 in the world, but this year he has a good chance to reside continuously in the top 20. Juan Monaco is a top of the line professional, and in his late twenties he has come of age. He is not going to win a major championship, or even a Masters 1000 crown. He has frailties, knows his limitations, and understands not only his strengths but his shortcomings. But recognize this about Juan Monaco: here is a man that earns his keep, a professional through and through, and a player who seems ready to make the most of his opportunities through the rest of 2012.