At the pro level, where players have spent the majority of their lives hitting backhands and forehands, the game is mostly mental. Sometimes players really believe the things they say. Sometimes they don’t really believe, but say they do, hoping it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
James Blake says the first time he played Roger Federer, and every time since, he was playing to win and thought he would win. Novak Djokovic admits that the first few times he played Federer he was playing to simply try and put up a good score, keep up with the Swiss, give him a good match and come off looking respectable. In Montreal a few weeks ago, when the Serb faced Federer, he told himself it was finally time to play to win, and logged his first victory over Federer.
On Saturday the American rookie sensation John Isner will go up against Federer, but until then, words will have to substitute for actions, and you’ll have to judge belief for yourself.
“If I go in that match not believing I’m gonna win, just happy to be out there, you know, he’s going to smell that, he’s going to smell that blood and just attack,” Isner said Wednesday night after advancing to the Federer meeting. “But I’m going to go out there and just play my game. Most importantly, have a lot of fun. I’m gonna believe. I’m not saying I’m gonna win, but I’m gonna believe. That’s what I have to do.”
Nervous double faults and slews of unforced errors usually mark rookie matches versus top players on show courts, but not so much for Isner, who has shown impressive nerve in tiebreaks through his run to the final at Washington (five consecutive third-set breaker wins) and his first two rounds at the US Open. If tiebreaks are the measure of a player’s nerve, then Isner has nerves of steel. And if Isner is going to take sets off Federer, they will more than likely be in tiebreaks.
Before his breakout run at Washington, Isner said he didn’t really watch pro tennis — except when Roger Federer was on TV. Even then he hadn’t dreamed of facing Federer one day. Now we’ll see what Isner picked up from those college days sitting in front of the tube with his Georgia tennis teammates, taking in the brilliance of the Swiss.
Once when Federer was asked how he would beat himself, he said he would do what few other players could, or were willing, to do against him — attack the net. Isner says he realizes his ground game isn’t in the same area code as Federer’s, so get ready on Saturday for an old-fashioned turn-back-the-clock net-crashing party.
“I’m gonna have to attack, try to get into the net, make the points shorter,” Isner said. “I’m not gonna — I know I can’t hang with him from the baseline. Hopefully hit my groundstrokes well and find the opportunities to get into the net, try to finish off points is what I’m gonna have to do.”
Isner finished his match Wednesday night before Federer, and did his post-match conference before the Swiss. When Federer did his post-match conference, U.S. journalists had very little interest in the match he just played against Chile’s Paul Capdeville. Federer discussed some of his difficulties against tall tour players such as Ivo Karlovic, and mentioned he had briefly seen Isner play — and inferred that tennis is more than a serve.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how good he is from the baseline,” Federer said. “I thought he hit the ball pretty well, but you never know until you face him.”
Federer faces Isner on Saturday, giving the USTA and host broadcasters more than two days to promote this thing like a heavyweight boxing match, the hottest American kid with the biggest serve in tennis against the No. 1 player and likely the greatest player ever. Promote this circus freak show on all U.S. networks — the 6-foot-8-1/2 kid against the Swiss army knife of tennis brilliance. Goliath against, uh, goliath.
Until (or if) Andy Roddick makes his quarterfinal date with Federer, this is the US Open’s big event on the men’s side. Tennis and non-tennis fans alike can be roped in to see just how far a seemingly-fearless kid who months ago was playing college tennis can go with an (on a good day) almost-unbreakable serve against the world’s best.
Bring the hype. Win or lose, American men’s tennis needs a kick in the ass, and this is it.
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