It wasn’t pretty. Okay–it really wasn’t pretty. This match made me want to stab myself in the face with a fork. At least it’s over.
After two hours and 23 minutes, Novak Djokovic finally triumphed over John Isner, 7-5, 6-7(2), 6-1. The ease with which he closed out the match couldn’t have differed more from everything that came before it: uncharacteristic backhand errors, lost groundstroke rallies against a lesser player, and horrific mental lapses when opportunity presented itself.
A 6-1 score in the final set tends to make a match look, in retrospect, like a predictable affair. This one was anything but.
Despite facing the world #2, Isner came into this match with a chance. He had won two of their previous six meetings, including their last match in the US and two years ago at Indian Wells. The conditions in the desert suit his game well–he had faced only five break points in his first four matches at the event this year.
True to expectations, it was anything but smooth sailing for Djokovic. He won his first 12 service points of the match, but did not regain that confidence on serve until the final set. Serving to stay in the first set at 4-5, he made three consecutive forehand errors, giving Isner triple break point. Fortunately for Novak, the American returned the favor, making three errors of his own. Djokovic held, then went on to win the next two games to seal the set, but it was a sign of struggles to come.
Throughout the first set and the beginning of the second, Isner persistently hit to his opponent’s backhand, engaging the Serb in long crosscourt rallies, the sort that usually end with Novak triumphant. It seemed like a misguided attempt to break down Djokovic’s usually impenetrable backhand … until it started working. Over the course of the match, Novak made more mistakes on that wing than on his forehand (14 to 11).
Those signs of weakness from Djokovic seemed to remind Isner that his game is about non-stop aggression (not, say, grinding out crosscourt rallies). That knowledge came in handy when the second set got weird.
At 4-4 in the fourth set, Djokovic broke the big man’s serve, seizing break point when Isner made a backhand error to end a 20-stroke rally. He served for the match, and in a game that saw him miss three of five first balls, winning only a single point, he failed to finish it off.
Fine–Isner had problems of his own. At 5-5, John made only two of his eight first serves, unable to hold as Novak won three quick points off of strong returns to break again. As if that wasn’t enough, Djokovic carried his momentum only as far as his chair. Isner won four straight return points to break back.
Novak said before the match that, against Isner, he had to be prepared to play three tiebreaks, but apparently he wasn’t prepared to win one. He lost five of the first six points–including one of those head-scratching backhand-to-backhand rallies with Isner serving at 2-1–as the American forced a tiebreak.
Oddly, Isner got as far as he did by relying on parts of his game other than the serve. (Not to mention reaping the benefits of Novak’s own problems.) John typically wins just short of 20% of his service points with aces; today, it was a mere 7.1%, lower than the Serb’s own rate. Djokovic is good at limiting his opponents’ ace counts–he was the last returner to keep Isner under 10%, at Cincinnati last year–but take those free points away from the American and he isn’t left with much.
Yet the American somehow held his own in long rallies with one of the best baseliners in tennis history. Isner won 6 of the match’s 15 points that passed the 10-stroke mark, as well as 9 of 22 in the 7-to-9-shot range. If those numbers don’t sound impressive, just remember who we’re talking about. In Isner’s last Masters-level final, against Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati last year, he won only 6 of 21 points that went seven strokes or longer. In today’s match, he not only held his own in the longer points, he forced more rallies to reach that length in the first place.
For all the positives that Isner can take away from today’s semifinal, few of them come from the third set. Struggling with a knee issue that brought a physio on court several times in the second half of the match, John didn’t hit a single ace in the last set. He double-faulted away Djokovic’s first break point of the set and hit only one second-shot winner–his bread-and-butter attack in the early going.
If Djokovic hopes to have a chance against Roger Federer in tomorrow’s final and avenge his recent loss in Dubai, he’ll need to play at least as well as he did in the last set today. Regardless of outcome, though, it’s a safe bet that the final won’t be nearly as excruciating of a viewing experience.