Isner Upsets Joker
March 17, 2012 | 08:14 PM
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Yesterday, time seemed suspended at Indian Wells during a last calm day in desert sunshine before the expected arrival of storm winds (and perhaps even a few rain drops to add to the .41 inches of precip so far in 2012), and two 30 year old players took advantage of the mood to turn the clocks back to 2006 (#3 Federer and #74 Nalbandian, who was #3 back then...).
Today, with the winds just beginning and the showers holding off another few hours, the year was still dialed back to before 2011 when a healthy Joker could lose a match to anyone below the rank of 4th. John ISNER, the 26 year old American ranked #13, was about to fulfill a prophecy and realize a goal, breaking into the top 10. He did it in style (his style: tie-breaker wins), serving an untouchable 20th ace on match point to defeat Joker in a break-through semi-final match of an important tournament that puts him in his first 1000 final: 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5).
This one may not be talked about as long as his marathon with Mahut, but it is far more important to his playing career. On the heels of his Davis Cup win over Federer last month, Isner's showing that he not only belongs in the top 10, but that he can beat anyone. If he wins the final here on Monday (with today's Rafa-Fed semi postponed until tomorrow, the final's been re-scheduled), he will have taken the #8 ranking from Mardy Fish and become the #1 American just 5 years after graduating from The University of Georgia as their all time win leader. If his success hadn't already helped change the USTA's attitude toward the value of collegiate tennis, they'd be revising plans behind closed doors now in Carlsbad before their annual meeting. Todd Martin, who watched the upset from Isner's box and has been looking for a top prospect to coach since dismantling Joker's serve two years ago cost him a job, may have given John the confidence he needed to break Novak, and has perhaps earned himself a job assisting long-time Isner coach Craig Boynton (former coach of Courier and Fish).
Let's recap how we got here.
Federer def. Del Potro 6-3, 6-2
FED was first up against the foe he's not lost a set to in 3 previous meetings this year, DEL POTRO, and this time he made it look so easy it felt like 2006, the last time Fed won here in the desert with an easy win over James Blake. Delpo made uncharacteristic errors and served poorly, at least relative to Roger, who fired 13 aces among his 27 winners (to 0 aces and 8 for Delpo). But it didn't seem to make any difference who was on the other side of the net or what was hit to him. Until serving for the match while up two breaks at 40-0, Fed never showed nerves. Had he not then choked, he'd have ended the match wining 60% of the points. Argentine fans may have been fixated with a challenge snafu in the first game when Delpo had one of his 3 break points (the camera didn't work), but not letting go of that may have been the least of his problems. At 10-2 life time with Delpo, this is a match-up that favors the Swiss regardless of the surface or the its speed. Fed fans still rue his having squandered his lead in the '09 Open final.
Nadal def. Nalbandian 4-6, 7-5, 6-4
RAFA was just as lost against Nalbandian, a life time match-up he leads only 3-2 and has always feared. Yesterday he was 2 points from defeat in the second set at 4-6, 4-5, 15-15 all on David's serve. After fans of the two engaged in back-and-forth screaming en espanol (it was a big day for Argentine tennis supporters), Nails maneuvered Rafa out of position for the umpteenth time and had a simple BH volley to hit into open court for a winner. It was one of those cliched 'turning points' when the player in control assumes the point is over and under-finishes a put away. For Nails, the magic was gone after that: he gave the set away, double-faulting on set point at 5-6 (he had served an ace to win the first set). Rafa acted like Rafa for a set, but then had an attack of nerves in closing at 5-2 in the 3rd when David resumed playing to win. Nails came all the way back to 4-5, 15-40 on Rafa's serve, before Rafa toughed out the last 4 points and ended with a signature double fist pump and a post hand-shake prance. J
This was just the sort of match to pump up the champ for his first ever showdown with Roger in the Wild West... and a great relief to tournament director Charlie Pasarell, who's hands had been covering his eyes a set earlier at the thought of losing today's headline in The Desert Sun: Dream Semi Served Up. Owner Larry Ellison next to him was also pleased as headlines like this help him move toward his goal of taking Indian Wells attendance to the rarified half million mark, higher than both Paris and Wimbledon.
In DOUBLES yesterday, John Isner and partner San Querrey (the IQ Brothers), handily defeating the #2 seeds Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor 6-4, 6-2, to earn his first IW final (against Rafa and Mark Lopez). Max may not be what he used to be -his backhand return has been on holiday this week, and he even missed routine backhand volleys - but John used the match to re-tool his gifted hands: Rafa has nothing on John's angle crosscourt topspin forehand winners hit on the dead run. The touch that had completely eluded John in his ugly quarterfinal win over Gilles Simon would be useful against Joker today: when he needed to break out of baseline rallies, time and again he scored with drops and drop volleys...
ISNER was as nervous as anyone would be against the best returner in the tennis, and was broken at love in the 3rd game. Joker was seeing the ball well, and played like a #1, holding quickly to 3-1. John trailed in the set without earning an opportunity to break back until down 5-4. With a couple of loose baseline errors, Joker fell behind 15-40, allowing Isner the chance to earn back the break. Once it got to the tie-breaker, the outcome was on Isner's terms, though it took him a couple of mini-breaks to earn a set point on serve and end it 9-7.
Joker wratched up his own serving and play in the second set, dropping only 1 point on serve on his way to a 6-3 win. With momentum and confidence going into the 3rd set, Joker was not a man to bet against. He staged a couple of early battles to challenge Isner on serve, but the American continued to come up big and bigger, nuking 140 mph serves and nicking side-lines to frustrate the Serb in key rallies. An early lead in the final breaker was cancelled with a Joker winner, but when Novak's forehand sailed long after a rally at 3-3, Giant John took it to 6-3 and waited his opportunity. Two unreturnable serves by Joker kept it suspenseful, but at 6-5 everyone knew what was possible, and Isner too advantage of the kind of opportunity that eludes so many others when they get close to upsetting a #1: 140 out wide was all it took.
Afterward John was all smiles and boyish charm: at nearly 27, a decade on the tour would have aged him more than his pathway through college, though he gained an education and a degree worth more in the long run. As for Joker, he moves on to Miami, ego and ranking well in tact.
In reaching the final at Indian Wells, Isner continues a streak of American men reaching the final every 2 years, and if he loses, that streak too will be preserved (Blake lost to Fed in '06; Fish to Joker in '08; Roddick to Ljubicic in '10). Both Fish and Roddick had upset #1 players on their way to the final, but coming in 2nd best seems to have been as much as Americans could expect.
Will John Isner be different?
And if so, WHY?
Food for thought before tomorrow.
BNP Paribas Open (Indian Wells final