April 08, 2012 | 08:37 PM
While sports fans in the USA were waking up to await the start of the final day of the Masters golf Championship, won by Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson (wearing long wait pants and a white shirt that evoked an era past at Wimbledon), French fans and a handful of well-to-do Americans at The Monte Carlo Country Club were watching another Georgia Bulldog, John Isner, win honors for his country in the oldest international team competition in the world, The Davis Cup.
Along with the French in Monte Carlo, Wimbledon Champ and world #1 Novak Djokovic was watching the tennis in Monte Carlo where he lives, missing the Serbian team losing to The Czech Republic (4-1). What he watched may have more to do with his future than what went on in Prague: a potential future successor (John Isner) dismissing another top 10 player (Tsonga) on his way to the top 4:
Isner def. Tsonga 6-3, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3
Isner controlled the first set by serving at 82% and attacking at every opportunity. He didn't face a break point and needed only one chance to break serve. Tsonga served well enough to hold serve with some work, but was unable to attack Isner's 2nd serves and only made it to the net 4 times (losing two points there).
The second set was a close contest, with Isner needing to save 4 break points to only one by Tsonga. At 5-6, John fell behind 15-40 after Jo attacked 2nd serve returns forcing errors from John, but in spite of missing his own 1st serves on break points John managed to win by forcing errors from Jo's backhand. The tie-breaker stayed on serve to 4-4 with errorless play, but Isner then ran around a 2nd serve to hit a forehand winner up the line for the mini-break. John forced an error on the next point and finished the set with an ace up the middle, his 9th.
In the 3rd set, John's service percentage slid rapidly down, ending at 49% for the set and giving Jo too many chances to experiment with and mix up his receiving position and his returns:
- Jo earned a couple of break chances in the 3rd game at 15-40, but John again defended 2nd serves to hold
- at 4-3 for John he earned his first and only break chance which the Frenchman saved with a big serve and big forehand
- at 4-4, John saved a break point after Jo's let cord winner on a desperate backhand pass got Jo to 30-30
- at 5-5, John saved 2 more from 15-40 (Jo got another let cord to get there at 15-30), but was broken on the next one when he double faulted (from the pressure of Jo's varied positioning tactics on returns)
- Jo served out the set 7-5
John's comment to Courier at the changeover: I'm still closer to the finish line than him.
With this attitude, John attacked Jo's serve in the 2nd game of the 4th set and converted the break on his 3rd chance. With 65% serving, 5 more aces and 13 winners (to 6 errors), John ran out his service games without facing a break point.
Jo had played as well as Isner had let him, and it's debatable anyone else could have played him any better with so few opportunities to take control of key points. For Jo, there was too much pressure on him during every exchange for him to perform his magic on the run:
- Jo served at 71%, won 51% of his 2nd serve points, won 73% of 40 points at net, and hit 43 winners to 37 UE's.
- John served at 75%, won 64% of his 2nd serve points, won 76% of 49 points at net, and hit 56 winners to 49 UE's.
The Coaching Difference
Moments after firing the last winner for another routine hold, giving the USA its 2nd straight World Group tie on clay, there was no roll in the dirt for Isner (a few spatters of red on the back of John's shirt appeared out of place), no run to the bench. And there was no look to a portion of the stands for the scattering of US fans who were there. The 10,000 French were left to gaze over the serene blue-green Mediterranean. Coach Courier was at best 4th in line to shake hands with his clutch man (after Tsonga, the French coach and the chair umpire), and there was only the barest of hugs between them. His team-mates hadn't poured from the players' box after the final point, but stood their places waiting for John to come to them for the same individual hand shake and mini-hug. Towering over them all, John looked like a parent hugging his well-bahaved children.
What's behind this muted celebration is coaching at its best from Courier, who - like a Belichek - has infused his team with the belief that they are meant to go all the way and instilled the discipline to keep their focus on the final prize. As far as the away venues are concerned, if Isner's remark on court after his match is to be believed, he feels it is an advantage to not play at home (he smiled spontaneously as he said it, so it didn't appear like a star delivering the post-win party line for the coach).
Future Prospects for Team USA in 2012
Given the news that their next tie would be away in Spain, who is undefeated at home in their last 23 ties, on paper the USA will face an even taller order. Of course, Rafa has been an important part of Spain's Cup success, and he may be unlikely to play, or to play his best if he does join the team following the US Open when his game is at an annual low point. In an Olympic year, Rafa may have an even harder time recovering from the second hard court season than he usually does; unlike Isner, Rafa can rarely coast to service wins that allow him to close out sets without a lot of effort. Without Rafa in singles, Ferrer and Almagro (who won today, giving Spain the tie 4-1 over Austria) will be the under dogs against Isner, and without Rafa in doubles Spain has no team that can beat the Bryans.
It may be most likely that to give Spain a chance, Rafa will agree to play doubles with Marc Lopez (they've won 4 titles, including Indian Wells in 2010 and 2012). However, playing 3 out of 5 sets with ad scoring will confer a large advantage on the Bryan's superior ability to adapt to opponents and adjust their tactics.
With the Americans now appearing to have a real shot at reaching the Cup final, the two other teams playing for that honor include big men of their own who gave their teams the deciding win today: Argentina with Del Potro (who beat an exhausted Cilic 6-1, 6-2, 6-1) and The Czech Republic with Berdych, who won his 3rd straight match in straight sets, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7).
Isner hasn't beaten Del Potro in their 3 meetings to date, and he's only won 1 of 3 against Berdych, but John's record and wins in the last 6 months and his improved play tell a different story about his future prospects with them.
Comparing our Big Man to Del Potro and Berdych:
- Isner's serve is the best
- Isner's forehand is the equal of either mans', and is arguably more consistent than Berdych's
- Isner's movement forward, finishing and net skills are superior to either mans'
- Isner's backhand is about the equal of eithers'
- Isner is possibly more aggressive returning serve than either
- Isner's touch is superior
- Isner's court coverage and defensive skills/passing shots are in the same league as both
- Isner's mental and physical toughness are superior (Marathon, anyone?)
With the best and one of the most reliable serves in the game, a forehand weapon the equal of almost any, and no vulnerability that is exploitable by even the top players when he plays his game well, Isner has has arrived in the top 10 looking like he's set to go to the top 4 or 5 this year.
As his website says on it's home page banner, The Future is Now. If Joker's watching, everyone is.
John's Schedule this Month
April 9 - 14: John is entered in Houston this week at the US Clay, with Mardy Fish, James Blake, Monaco, Lopez, Anderson, Bogomolov and Malisse. He may be very high or a little flat. If he feels flat tomorrow or senses the emotions and stress of the tie will catch up to him before he is to rest in 2 weeks, he should cancel his flights and practice with Joker in Monte Carlo!
April 14 - 22: John returns to The Monte Carlo Country Club for their ATP 1000 event, along with all the Top 10 except Federer and Fish (Del Potro will skip Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and begin his clay season in Estoril).
Davis Cup Day 3 (quarterfinal, 2012