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Steve Flink: Things Looking Up for American Tennis

2/23/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Things are looking up for men’s tennis in the United States, both literally and figuratively. When Sam Querrey and John Isner confronted each other last weekend in the final of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at Memphis, the two Americans celebrated an historic moment in their sport. With Isner standing at 6’9” and Querrey at 6’6”, this title round confrontation was billed as the tallest ATP World Tour final. But it was much more than that.

For Isner, this was a chance to secure a second ATP World Tour title in the very young 2010 season. It was an opportunity for him to make his presence known even more persuasively as a player heading rapidly toward the front line. It was an opening for the 24-year-old to step forward and win his first ever singles crown in his country. For Querrey, the stakes were also remarkably high. He had suffered a freak accident late last September in Bangkok, injuring his right arm so severely that he could not compete again for the rest of the 2009 campaign.

Querrey had not fared well upon his return earlier this year. He suffered three consecutive first round defeats, bowing against James Blake in Brisbane, falling to Evgeny Korolev in Sydney, coming up short at the Australian Open against 33-year-old Rainer Schuettler. That was a tough patch for the 22-year-old Californian. But he broke out of that slump decidedly in San Jose, reaching the semifinals before losing by the narrowest of margins to Andy Roddick. Roddick toppled Querrey 2-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) but he never lost his serve in that contest, and not once did he even face a break point. It was a clear sign that Querrey was rediscovering the form that carried him to three finals last summer.

When Querrey collided with Roddick again in the quarterfinals of Memphis, he retaliated emphatically to oust the best American player of them all. Querrey lost his serve only once and came away with a clear-cut 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 triumph over Roddick. Two days later, Querrey took on his doubles partner Isner in a spirited final round meeting, and demonstrated that his growing match playing acumen. Here were two of the most prodigious servers in the sport, coming at each other full force, playing different brands of attacking tennis, and playing it exceedingly well.

Isner has made immense progress over the last six months or so. He has made it to the round of 16 at the last two Grand Slam events, stunning Roddick in a five set, third round showdown at the U.S. Open before losing to Fernando Verdasco. At the Australian Open, he was gritty and disciplined as he earned a fourth round assignment against Andy Murray. Despite not winning a set, he acquitted himself honorably. He had already won in Auckland to commence his 2010 season on a high note, and for the better part of two sets he seemed entirely capable of accounting for the more seasoned Querrey in their Memphis title round appointment.

Both men were virtually unstoppable on serve. Although Querrey connected with only 54% of his first serves for the match---- Isner’s numbers were significantly higher at 66%--- Querrey was backing up his delivery superbly with his patented inside-out forehand and his dependable two-handed backhand, a stroke he has improved decidedly over the last year. Across the three set final, Querrey and Isner would both win 82% of their first serve points, but Querrey--- the more flexible and consistent player from the back of the court--- would take an astounding 79% of his second serve points, with Isner winning 62% in that category. The reason for that discrepancy was straightforward: Querrey gets a better percentage of returns back into play, while Isner goes for broke more and misses too many of them. Querrey is a sounder player from the baseline than Isner, by a meaningful margin.

In any case, Isner held the upper hand--- however slightly--- for a long stretch. His selective serving-and-volleying was a sound tactic which enabled the taller man to keep pressing forward to conclude points with sharp volleying. In turn, he kept Querrey off balance. Both men held comfortably during the first set, but Querrey suddenly found himself in a bind. He had served three love games in a row, but at 4-5 he went behind 15-40, double set point. Calmly and resolutely, Querrey served his way out of that jam, and the players proceeded to a tie-break. In that sequence, Isner was at his very best. He played with the ultimate type of controlled aggression, surging to 4-1.

After Querrey closed the gap to 4-3, Isner stamped his authority on the set with a huge service winner out wide to the backhand, followed by another explosive first serve that Querrey could not handle. Just like that, Isner was at 6-3. Querrey was off the mark on the next point with a backhand crosscourt approach, and the set belonged deservedly to Isner. At 2-2 in the second set, Isner reached break point, but Querrey got his first serve in, elicited a short return, and then released a beautifully controlled forehand inside-out winner. Querrey held on, but he was having increasing difficulty reading Isner’s explosive serve. In six service games, Isner conceded a total of five points en route to the second set tie-break.

Isner was primed for that sequence. He charged to a 5-2 lead, and stood two points from victory, moving within two points of capturing the championship. Up until that stage, Isner had not lost a point on his serve in either tie-break. Surely, he must have felt ready to seal the verdict. But Querrey was not ready to cede any ground. He delivered an ace for 3-5. Then Isner was set up perfectly for his fearsome inside-out forehand, but he missed it badly.

Now the tension was evident. Isner was serving at 5-4, still in command. But he missed two straight first serves narrowly. At 5-4, he still managed to throw in a terrific second serve, and Querrey’s return landed short. Isner stepped in for the big forehand, the same shot he had driven inside-out so brilliantly all match long. But he bungled this one flagrantly to make it 5-5. On the following point, he did not do enough with a backhand volley down the line, and Querrey passed him off the forehand. Querrey had turned a 5-2 deficit into a 6-5 lead, and he quickly closed out the set as Isner missed off the backhand.

On a run of five straight points, after his back had been completely to the wall, Querrey had somehow made it back to one set all. He was not going to lose from there. Some spring disappeared from Isner’s step, and Querrey exploited that vulnerability to the hilt. At 1-1 in the third set, Isner finally lost his serve as mental and perhaps physical fatigue set in. Twice, Querrey passed Isner off the backhand, and once he came up with a forehand passing shot winner. At break point, Querrey angled a backhand pass crosscourt and a lunging, discombobulated Isner misplayed the volley. The match was essentially over. Querrey held easily through the final set, broke once more at 3-5, and emerged with a 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory. It was a win hard earned, a tribute to Querrey’s steady hand on the wheel.

And yet, both men took something substantial away from the week. Isner has now climbed to a career high of No. 21 in the world. Querrey is right behind him at No. 22, tying a career best mark that he had set for himself in 2009. The die has been cast. Both men will inevitably finish 2010 somewhere in the top 15, and perhaps slightly higher. They are two significant members of the new wave of big men in their sport. The four highest ranked performers in tennis--- Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray--- are not among the tallest men in their sport. Federer is 6’1”, Djokovic is 6’2”, Nadal is 6’1”, and Murray is 6’3”. They are reasonably yet not inordinately tall.

But world No. 5 and U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro is 6’6”, No. 7 Soderling is 6’4”, and No. 9 Marin Cilic is 6’6”. Out there in the mix is the ever dangerous Ivo Karlovic (No. 33 in the world), the tallest man in tennis at 6’10”. More and more, the big men are displaying remarkable agility and greater flexibility. Querrey is a very smooth mover for a man of his size, and Isner no longer looks anything like the sometimes awkward and clumsy fellow who burst into our consciousness in 2007. The view here is that Isner and Querrey will both be formidable at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later this year. I don’t see either of these men walking away with the top honors at those premier events, but they could cause a lot of trouble for the leading players.

Meanwhile, Querrey and Isner will join forces on the American Davis Cup team which faces Serbia March 5-7. Isner and Querrey are the second and third best players in their nation, and they are at least a year or two away from their respective peaks. Although Andy Roddick remains the finest American player, he has a pair of compatriots in Isner and Querrey who could join him in the company of the world’s top ten someday not too far away. With former world No. 4 James Blake--- now mired at No. 50—looking to reinvigorate his career, and Mardy Fish (currently stationed at No. 73) only sporadically performing up to his highest standards, the recent exploits of Querrey and Isner could not have been timelier. They just might revitalize American tennis. 

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