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Steve Flink: American Semifinal Davis Cup defeat no disgrace

9/17/2012 12:00:00 PM

The world of professional tennis doesn’t always make much sense. Only four days after the conclusion of the last major championship of the season at the U.S. Open, the two Davis Cup World Group semifinals were held over this past weekend, with the Czech Republic stopping Argentina, and Spain inflicting defeat upon the United States. Watching it all on television, I must say how much I commiserated with the players from all of those nations, especially David Ferrer of Spain. It requires immense emotional energy and considerable physical resources to represent your country in Davis Cup at any time, but especially so soon after a major.

In the case of the industrious, enterprising and unswerving Ferrer, he had not completed his semifinal at the U.S. Open on the hard courts in New York until Sunday afternoon. On he went to Spain immediately, leaving himself one day to get adjusted to the time change, and only two days to get acclimated on clay again. Ferrer had only once before been in the semifinals of the Open. He deserved the chance to savor that moment and to put his racket on the shelf for a while after a long and arduous season. But he had no such chance. Duty called. His nation needed him. And Ferrer did not let them down. In fact, he spearheaded Spain’s 3-1 triumph over a commendable American squad, winning the opening contest of the series in four sets over Sam Querrey, and sealing the victory for his country on the last day with another four set win over John Isner.

No wonder this diminutive man is so admired by his peers and out among the court of public opinion. He is, quite simply, a professional through and through, a fighter who may be surpassed only by Rafael Nadal, and a man with so much heart that he refuses to shirk any responsibility. If he felt debilitated by all the work he had put in across the winter, through the spring, and on into the summer of 2012, Ferrer never revealed it. If he wished he could have been somewhere else—perhaps resting on a beach with cool refreshments and not a care in the world—he gave no indication of that. If he had gone out in this Davis Cup tie and played listlessly or displayed any signs of battle fatigue, Ferrer would have been forgiven by his ardent brigade of supporters.

The bottom line is that Ferrer was his usual unshakable self, going out and doing his job earnestly and unapologetically, performing with zest and unwavering pride. Let’s review his win over Isner, which gave Spain an insurmountable 3-1 lead, and turned out to be the last match played on a memorable weekend. Isner had labored across four hours and 16 minutes two days earlier before losing an agonizing five set match to Nicolas Almagro, giving Spain a 2-0 lead at that stage. Returning after a day of rest to take on Ferrer, Isner knew full well that he had to capture the first set to stand a realistic chance of toppling a competitor who resides deservedly at No. 5 in the world.

Both players gave that opening set everything they had. It was well played on both sides of the net. Ferrer broke Isner to move ahead 2-1 and held for 3-1. But Isner made his move ably, holding at love for 2-3, breaking back for 3-3 as Ferrer miscalculated and missed an inside-out forehand, and then holding at 15 for 4-3. He had won 12 of 15 points in that three game span, and Isner had a break point in the eighth game, which he wasted with a poorly struck backhand return off a sensible kick serve from the Spaniard. Ferrer held on for 4-4. Isner saved a break point at 4-4 and two more at 5-5, but both men managed to hold on to set up a tie-break. The American was unstoppable in that sequence. He served an ace down the T for 1-0, released two more aces to advance to 4-1, and never looked back. Isner won the tie-break, 7-3, and secured the first set with his excellent clutch play at the end.

Early in the second, Isner pushed hard to go up a break and build some momentum. But Ferrer fended him off admirably. At 15-30, the Spaniard sliced a backhand pass down the line for a remarkable winner, a nearly impossible shot to make with the American covering the line. Later in that game, Ferrer was break point down but Isner could not convert, netting a down the line backhand return that he tried to take early. Ferrer held on for 1-0, and then broke Isner in the following game with some superb returning. Ferrer surged to 3-0, rolled to 4-1, and then broke Isner again for 5-1 at love with some more extraordinary returning. Although Isner broke back for 2-5 and held for 3-5—capturing eight points in a row—Ferrer was unruffled, holding at love to win the set 6-3.

Isner had a brief opening with Ferrer serving at 1-2 in the third set. The American had a break point in that game, but narrowly missed a backhand return. Ferrer held on for 2-2. At 3-3—serving in the crucial seventh game—Isner was broken at love, missing two out of four first serves and failing to hold his own with the tenacious Spaniard from the baseline. That essentially settled the set. Ferrer held twice from there to win it 6-4. The sprightly 30-year-old Spaniard had too many answers off the ground, and the 6’9” American was not playing this match on his terms. Ferrer was largely outmaneuvering him, throwing in timely backhand drop shot winners, moving the towering American from side to side with meticulous ball control and precision, controlling the tempo masterfully.

Serving at 1-1, 15-30 in the fourth set, Isner was stymied by a beautifully controlled return off a 137 MPH first serve. The Spaniard got the break for 2-1 with another deep and solid return. He held for 3-1 and then broke Isner again for 4-1 with another telling return off a big first serve. Ferrer marched to victory from there, carrying his nation into the Davis Cup Final with aplomb, recording a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 triumph. Isner had been largely responsible for the Americans making it to the penultimate round, upending Roger Federer in the opening round on indoor clay in Switzerland, and toppling the gifted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the decisive match on outdoor clay in France.

But the 27-year-old American has been dealt some severe blows this year despite some brilliance early in the season. Every one of his losses at the four majors was a five set setback. He never made it past the third round in any of those events, falling inexplicably in the opening round of Wimbledon against the left-handed Alejandro Falla, allowing his third round meeting with Philipp Kohlschreiber to slip from his grasp under the lights at the U.S. Open. Isner’s ego was surely bruised by his record at those Grand Slam events this year, and it did not help when he lost another heartbreaker to Almagro on opening day of Davis Cup this past weekend.

Ferrer had put the Americans into uncomfortable territory when he came from a set down to oust Querrey in the opening match. He had altered the complexion of that contest immeasurably by taking control from the backcourt early in the second set against his rival from California. He broke the American twice in the second, twice more in the third, and then completed a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 win. That set the stage for Almagro to meet Isner in a must win match for the American.

The stylish Spaniard—who owns one of the game’s finest one-handed topspin backhands—broke Isner at 1-1 in the opening set and made it count, holding on the rest of the way to take it, 6-4. But then, serving at 4-5 in the second set, Almagro double faulted to fall behind 0-30. Isner’s forehand return clipped the net cord and fell over for a winner. Almagro was at 0-40. He saved one set point but could not escape on the second. Isner moved opportunistically back to one set all. Early in the third, Almagro broke Isner again and he secured that set with his superior ground game.

Yet Isner competed with temerity to take the fourth set. He saved three break points at 2-2, cast aside three more at 3-3, and then broke Almagro for 5-3. Isner held at love to win the fourth set 6-3, and seemed more than capable of prevailing in the fifth. With Almagro serving at 2-2 in that final set, Isner had two crucial break points. He missed a forehand inside-in return on one and came out on the wrong end in a bruising 22 stroke exchange on the other. Almagro held on for 3-2. With Isner serving at 4-5, the American was down double match point at 15-40 but bailed himself out with a penetrating inside out forehand and a trademark ace out wide in the ad court. Almagro advanced to match point for the third time, but Isner erased it emphatically with another ace out wide.

Isner courageously rallied to 5-5, had Almagro down 15-30 in the following game, but missed an aggressive forehand inside out wildly. Almagro moved to 6-5. Isner had two game points for 6-6 but never arrived at that destination. Almagro broke him for the third and final time to prevail 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. It was yet another stinging loss for the proud yet sometimes overconfident American.

The next day, the Bryan brothers kept the American hopes alive with a richly deserved four set doubles win over an injured Marcel Granollers and his energetic partner Marc Lopez. The Bryans raised their record in Davis Cup to an astounding 20-2, and it was hard to say who made the larger contribution to this win. The left-handed Bob never lost his serve in the match. That was a key to the outcome. But his brother Mike was the better all-around player, returning magnificently from the ad court, and volleying better than his brother for the most part. They were a joy to watch as they exploited their conventional serve-and-volley approach to doubles and brought down a team that tried in vain to serve and stay back. Victory went to the 34-year-old Bryan twins 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.

And so the dynamic duo kept their nation in contention, but Ferrer refused to buckle against Isner, not even when he was a set down to the American. The U.S. contingent and their estimable captain Jim Courier deserve full marks for reaching the semifinals. They played away from home against Switzerland, France and Spain, and had to confront all of those nations on clay courts. In November, Spain looks to win the Davis Cup for the fourth time in a sterling five year stretch.

Meanwhile, at least briefly, David Ferrer can put his feet up at last, reflect on an excellent 2012 campaign, and reap the emotional rewards of all the magnificent work he has done over the course of this year and across his entire career. Here is a man who has never taken a shortcut in his life.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.