The initial reactions were that it was epic. Some even decided to call it one of the greatest Davis Cup upsets ever. And while it wasn’t quite either of those things, it was definitely something that American tennis desperately needed.
American tennis hit its low point a few weeks ago during the Australian Open when an American failed to reach the fourth round of a Slam for the first time in the Open Era. And things were not expected to get much better here. Mardy Fish has not been playing well recently. Andy Roddick injured his hip at the Australian Open. And the USA was going up against a Switzerland team led by Roger Federer.
Federer is one of those players who, like Bjorn Borg in the past, could basically win Davis Cup ties on his own. He is almost a lock to win two singles matches and is very good in doubles as well. With Nadal and Djokovic not playing for their respective countries this year, many considered Switzerland the favorite to win the Davis Cup this year. And while the USA has been good in Davis Cup historically, their past few outings against other top teams have left much to be desired.
And, of course, the tie was in Switzerland. This meant that not only would the USA be facing a hostile crowd, but that the Swiss team would get their choice of surface to play on. This is where the Swiss made their biggest mistake. They decided to play to their opponents’ weaknesses as opposed to their own strengths. So while Federer is still the world’s best player on fast indoor hard courts, Switzerland decided to play this tie on clay, a surface which no American has actually been anywhere near good on since Andre Agassi.
Everyone expected Federer to win his two singles rubbers. After all, it was Federer (7-1 career against Fish and 2-0 against Isner) and it was on clay. Thus, Mardy Fish had a huge task ahead of him. He had to beat Stanislas Wawrinka on clay just to give the US a chance. Wawrinka had been having troubles recently, but it was nothing compared to Fish’s poor level to start 2012. Fish came out strong and fought though, and eventually prevailed 9-7 in an extended fifth set.
This led us to what, in hindsight, was the most important rubber of the tie. Everyone was looking forward to doubles as the turning point because people expected that Isner could beat Wawrinka and that Fed would win his two rubbers easily. And Federer did not disappoint in the first set. He broke Isner early and was mostly untroubled on his serve, taking the first set 6-4. And that’s when things got interesting.
Big John realized that with his height, the high bounce of the court, and his massive serve that he could give Federer fits. Once he started playing the court with all of his natural advantages, his service games became much easier for him. He is also so tall that his hampered movement didn’t hurt him as much as he got to balls early with his long strides. He got into some of Federer’s service games, got a few breaks, and won a tough tiebreak in the third set to help take the rubber.
After that, it was pretty much over. Federer and Wawrinka probably could have won the doubles, but there was no way that Wawrinka was beating Isner at Isner’s level anyway. This was a tough loss for Federer, as evidenced by some of his post-match comments (even ignoring the rabble-rousing exaggerated translations, Federer was still obviously upset by many things about the tie).
So what does this mean for USA tennis? In Davis Cup, probably not much. They will travel to France for the quarterfinals, where they will probably also play on clay. Isner might be the best American on clay so hopefully he will play that tie even if Roddick is healthy, but it’s still hard to call him anywhere near a favorite on clay. But this tie should at least inspire confidence in Isner moving forward (especially during the clay season) and should hopefully help pull Fish out of his recent slump.
If Isner can become more confident and play more consistently, there are few limits for him. He is probably not a top 5-caliber player, but the top 10 is easily within his reach. With 4 Masters events coming in the next 3 months (5 including Monte Carlo) and with a combined 190 points to defend at those, Isner could definitely be in the top 10 by the time Roland Garros comes around. Hopefully Isner learns from this to be willing to play more on clay, especially at those tournaments which have a higher-bouncing surface. Isner will be seeded at Rome and Madrid (and at Monte Carlo if he plays), so there are serious opportunities for lots of points on clay there. Isner has shown the ability to show up in big matches against top players, like when he took Rafa to 5 sets at the French Open last year. Now he just needs to play at that level with consistency and he could really become a factor in Masters and Slams very quickly.
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