Giant John Isner was the bigger man today, stunning Roger Federer 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the second rubber of the 2012 Davis Cup’s World Group 1st round. The win by Isner gave America a 2-0 lead in the tie. Earlier this afternoon, Mardy Fish finally came up big for America, coming from two sets to one down to defeat Stanislas Wawrinka in 5 sets, 9-7 in the 95 minute 5th set. While Fish-Wawrinka was laborious at best, Federer-Isner was downright jaunty in comparison. Isner was able to take care of business in under 3 hours and notched his first victory over Federer ever. The win was actually Isner’s first ever against any of the top four, previously 0-2 versus Federer, still 0-7 combined against Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal.
As Roger might be telling the media back in Switzerland right now, the record doesn’t tell the whole tale. American tennis fans have had to take notice of Isner’s impressive display against Nadal on Spanish clay in 2010 in DC, which was as far as Nadal was pushed on the surface since the Sunday Bloody Sunday 4th round massacre he suffered at the hands of ball crusher Robin Soderling at RG in 2009, still Nadal’s only loss at the French Open. And what about Isner’s performance against Nadal at the French last year, where he became the 1st man to take Nadal to 5 sets, and led in sets 2 to 1 before the Spanish comeback?
Isner is capable of some pretty big tennis, even on clay against the very height of the competition. Aside from Djokovic, the only man able to beat Nadal at his own game on clay, the strategy seems to be to go right at Nadal, as Soderling and Isner do. It’s not as though the big man is looking to trade shots on clay. He is looking for knockouts, and looping spin often lands right in his strike zone. Despite Federer landing some punches today on the red clay at Fribourg, he played tentative tennis. Federer put 50 of 51 second serves in play, but did little with the ball on second serve in his middle game, creating enough opportunities for Isner to manage three breaks of serve, which proved to be more than enough.
Isner must be credited for playing so aggressively on clay today, and as habit. On points the match was incredibly close, 126-120. Probably not much of a coincidence that Isner took 14 points at net to Federer’s 8. Isner has shown a penchant for knowing what it takes to have a chance against much quicker guys on clay, given his size and comparative lack of mobility. Isner saved 11 0f 12 break points against, made 34 service winners, and out-winnered Roger on the forehand (28-22) and backhand (9-6) wings. Let’s face it. If you have more forehand winners than Roger, you are well on the way to having him beat. Also impressive was Isner’s 7 first ball return winners, and that he won the total winner count decisively (85-66).
Back to the speed of the match for a moment. While we appreciate that both men like to play fast, from the middle of the second set out, the match had a very Wimbledon/Tsonga like feel, obviously a problem for Roger. Federer does not do enough to change the momentum sometimes in downhill contests, as this one was. He seemed content to let this match sail by. Big servers have stuck it to Roger in big spots over the last 3 years, and when these guys (Soderling, Tsonga, Berdych) get on their rolls, the match seems a fait accompli.
While Roger has to do more in the return game, go for more, mix it up more, stall more, take a timeout directly prior to an opponent’s serve game, take a stroll along the back fence or whatever, we are more concerned with praising those due right now. John Isner played a phenomenal match, played the whole of it on his toes, and deserved very much to walk away the victor. We have been touting Isner as America’s best big match player for some time now. This guy is incredibly calm at all times, plays opportunistic tennis, and maximizes his chances.
We’d also like to offer a scant word of praise for our buddy Mardy Fish, who finally came up with important tennis in the spot, with a very impressive come from behind win. Fish also played the bigger tennis today, and notably managed 34 forehand winners on a slow red court where his forehand tends to be rather anemic on most days. Normally at this point in the tie, the Bryan sledgehammer would drop, and the tie would be virtually locked up. But Bob Bryan and his swinging lefty serve will not participate in the tie because his wife has recently given birth. Captain Courier, who has coached a hell of a tie so far, has made the curious decision as to partner Ryan Harrison with Mike Bryan tomorrow against Federer and Wawrinka, who make for a rather striking doubles team, and one who has had past success.
In our minds, both Fish and Isner are proven commodities in the doubles, and Harrison is a bit of a risk. We hate to coach Courier’s squad for him, but it might be a wiser call to let Isner pair with Mike Bryan, especially since Isner was able to get off the court in reasonable time today. Ryan Harrison has never played in a meaningful Davis Cup match, and so we’d be a lot more comfortable with a proven serve and volley doubles guy in this spot tomorrow with a place in the next round on the line.
Though America leads 2-0 and we could not be happier, Davis Cup often turns on or is decided by the doubles, and our ace pair, the 19-3 DC lifetime Bryans, will not be competing whole. Should the Swiss pair win tomorrow, we can easily see Federer topping Fish in the 4th rubber on Sunday. In that case, the tie would be decided by Wawrinka-Isner. In that head to head, Isner leads 2-1 and has won their only matchup on clay (Belgrade, 2010).