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Steve Flink: Isner's summer schedule catches up with him

9/1/2013 9:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NEW YORK—All summer long, John Isner played tennis to the best of his ability, knocking off formidable players left and right, winning a tournament, signaling that when he is at the top of his game he is one of the sport’s front line players and an overwhelming physical presence. After an injury forced him to retire at 1-1 in the first set of his second round match at Wimbledon against Adriano Mannarino, Isner threw his heart and soul into the hard court campaign, and the 6’9” American performed with vigor and a growing sense of self.

He actually started his resurgence on the grass in Newport, Rhode Island the week after Wimbledon, reaching the semifinals before the indefatigable Lleyton Hewitt mowed him down in three tough sets. Isner took a week off and then went to Atlanta. He was victorious in the hard court event there, eclipsing Kevin Anderson in a well-played and hotly contested final. Buoyed by that development, he had a very good week in Washington, reaching the final there, losing in the title round to a top of the line Juan Martin Del Potro. Isner was on a roll, and he knew that he was reaching a level we had not seen from him since the first half of 2012, when he upended Roger Federer and Jo Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup matches abroad, and cut down Novak Djokovic in a stirring Indian Wells semifinal on the California hard courts.

After his 2013 defeat against Del Potro at Washington, Isner was understandably fatigued. Competing for the third week in a row, he was ushered out of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Montreal event in his opening match by the young Canadian Vasek Pospisil. That loss was clearly a blessing in disguise. He recouped physically for Cincinnati, and celebrated a spectacular week at that event. In the quarterfinals, he toppled Djokovic 7-5 in the final set, coming through gamely in the clutch as the world No. 1 faltered decidedly under pressure in the end. One day later, Del Potro had a match point in the second set, and was seemingly poised for a straight set triumph over the American. Isner had other notions. Del Potro double faulted wildly, and Isner came all the way back to record a three set victory. In the final of Cincinnati, he was beaten by Rafael Nadal in a pair of tie-breaks, but he never even faced a break point against the Spaniard; his play during that match was the best I have ever seen from him in defeat.

Given all of the preceding facts, many close observers of the game were looking for Isner to have an exhilarating U.S. Open. He had restored his old belief in himself. His game was in full working order. Never had he been better prepared for a U.S. Open. But, in the final analysis, perhaps he was exceedingly well prepared. From Newport through Cincinnati, he played no fewer than 20 matches, winning 16, raising his game considerably in the process. He did have the good judgment to not defend his title in Winston Salem, North Carolina the week before the Open, realizing that he would ruin his chances in New York if he had gone deep into that draw down south.

The fact remains that Isner was still a physically weary man. Five tournaments between Wimbledon and the Open are too many, especially when you win one of those events, reach two finals, and get to a semifinal. He had won many significant battles in that span, but ultimately he lost the war. Isner managed to win two matches at this U.S. Open, including a crackling four set encounter under the lights against the charismatic Gael Monfils. But, for the second year in a row at the championships of his country, Isner bowed out against the German stylist Philipp Kohlschreiber, a player ranked 25th in the world but seeded 22nd. Isner had good-naturedly said after his win over Monfils that he was out for revenge against Kohlschreiber. His 2012 third round loss to Kohlschreiber was a five set skirmish, and an agonizing contest for Isner because he was ahead two sets to one. It was doubly dismaying because that setback was his fourth five set loss in a row at the 2012 majors in a season when he failed to advance beyond the third round at a Grand Slam event.

In any case, Isner came out for his appointment this time with Kohlschreiber in the afternoon, and he was invigorated in one way yet depleted in another. His attitude was upbeat. He was demonstrative in a positive way, determined to win this match and earn a round of 16 appointment with Nadal, anxious to set the record straight with Kohlschreiber. But the 28-year-old was found wanting when it counted the most as Kohlschreiber proved irrefutably that it was not a fluke when he stopped Isner a year ago at the same stage of the tournament.

Kohlschreiber was the competitor with the stronger disposition, the player who handled the tense moments with more aplomb, the man who deserved to win. He triumphed 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5). This was a classic case of a player coming through primarily by playing the big points better than his opponent. He broke the big American in the opening game of the match, and made it count, garnering that set in 32 minutes. Kohlschreiber outmaneuvered Isner from the baseline, refused to allow his adversary to move around for too many inside out forehand winners, and kept Isner essentially at bay with his depth of the forehand and his sparkle off the backhand. The Kohlschreiber one-handed backhand is among the prettiest shots in tennis, and it was on full display.

Isner, however, broke the German once to take the second set, and it was one set all after 62 minutes. Now the match took on another light; both players elevated their games considerably over the last two sets. At 5-5 in the third, Kohlschreiber was pushed to deuce on his serve, but he held on. With Isner serving to stay in the set at 5-6, the German played a terrific return game. The depth of his returns was too much for Isner. On the first point of that critical game, Kohlschreiber sent a crosscourt forehand return off a first serve very close to the baseline, drawing a netted forehand from Isner. Then Isner missed badly on an inside-out forehand to make it 0-30, and drove a two-hander down the line over the baseline, pressing on that shot. It was 0-40, and Isner was triple set point down. He saved the first with an ace out wide in the ad court, but then double faulted long. Set to Kohlschreiber, 7-5.

The fourth set was commendable from both men in many ways. Kohlschreiber saved three break points at 4-4, but Isner persisted, and got the break in the eleventh game. The towering American was serving for the set at 6-5, poised to take the encounter into a fifth set, feeding off the fervor of a crowd that was responding to his every move vociferously and unabashedly. But Isner stumbled once more when it counted. He was stymied by Kohlschreiber at the least likely time, broken for the third time in the match, denied the opportunity to climb into a fifth set with momentum. He lost his serve at 15, double faulting to fall behind 15-40.

In the fourth set tie-break, the score went to 3-3, but Isner drove an inside-out forehand long to fall behind a mini-break. He had to go for that shot, and under less stressful circumstances he might have made it. But he missed by a wide margin. Kohlschreiber took his two service points confidently, and suddenly the American was down triple match point. He saved two of them on his serve, but Kohlschreiber was now serving, and he made good on his third match point opportunity by coming to the net for the finishing touch. It was a first rate performance from Kohlschreiber, but Isner was disappointing in some fundamental ways. Why did he start so slowly and go down a set quickly? What happened to him at 5-6 in the third, when he should have served his way into a tie-break? How could he get broken at 6-5 in the fourth after all of the hard work he had done?

Only Isner can answer those questions, and perhaps it will take some time for him to sort it all out. He said after the match that the thigh injury issue that had been bothering him was not “an issue.” He said, “It was more of a fatigue thing. I felt like I wore myself out getting charged up out there. It’s hard to explain but I used too much energy doing that.”

Isner blamed himself also for too much predictability. “I didn’t mix up my second serve enough against him, so he was able to camp out and know that it was pretty much going go his backhand. Looking back on it, I should have changed that.”

The most interesting comment made by Isner was about his immediate future. “ I’ve got to try to build on how well I played this summer, because I’ve set myself up to get back in the top ten again. I feel like it’s up to me to go back out there and try to get back in there.”

He could not be more right about that. Isner has been playing the majors since the 2007 U.S. Open, but the best he has done in a Grand Slam event was reaching the quarterfinals of the Open in 2011. He is a better player than that, and it is time for John Isner to step up, take responsibility, and prove it. Here is a man with one of the all-time great serves in tennis, a fellow with an explosive flat forehand and an immense will to win, a man with many strengths and some obvious vulnerabilities. I hope next year he rearranges his schedule over the summer and comes into the U.S. Open fresh and ready to release his greatest tennis at a time of consequence; this year, he was compromised from the time he arrived on site for the last major of 2013. He only has perhaps three years left of top level tennis, and he must give that time his full and undivided attention. John Isner has simply not done himself justice yet as a tennis player. But it is not too late for him to realize some larger dreams.
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.