What a day of madness at Indian Wells Tennis Masters with two startling semifinal bracket-busting results. First, John Isner simply outserved and outsmarted Novak Djokovic 7-6, 3-6, 7-6 to earn a berth in the biggest final of his young career.
The 26-year-old Isner not only served bombs but also backed them up with some sturdy groundstrokes and timely volleys that left the World No. 1 frustrated and bewildered.
“I knew going into this year that I had the tools and I had the game to be able to at least compete with these guys,” said Isner who beat Roger Federer last month. “I take the court no matter who I’m playing expecting to win and believing to win. There’s really no reason to take the court if I believe otherwise. The win against Roger was very big for my confidence, and obviously this one will be very big for my confidence, also.”
Isner’s effort moves him into the Top 10 for the first time in his career, a level I thought he could reach when he first burst onto the tennis scene in 2007. And remarkably here he is.
The 6’9″ American has improved his backhand and has a full understanding of the limits of his game. And he maximizes it well. Just ask Djokovic.
“With that serve and with that forehand he’s got the ability to be a Top 10 player,” said Djokovic. “He had that already a couple years back. It’s just a matter of really trusting your instincts and your strokes and your quality. I think it all came together for him now, and he’s deservedly in the Top 10 now.”
Yet Djokovic was in complete control early on, getting into Isner’s service games and really dictating off the ground. Eventually, Novak got the break and just when it looked like he would cruise to a first set win, things turned. Djokovic double faulted, made a poor challenge decision giving the break back. And when you play breakers again Isner, it’s like Russian roulette.
“The first set was really key because he came out and got on top of me early,” said Isner who smashed 20 aces including one on matchpoint. “At 5-4, I got back on serve; that gave me a lot of momentum. And winning that first set tie-breaker, I knew that I was firmly in the match. At that point I believed I could win the match, but at that point it was within my reach.”
Still, Djokovic shook off the initial dissapoinment, regrouped like a champion to win the second. But he would have to break Isner again to win the match because a third set breaker is not the place you want to go against Isner, and ultimately that’s where he ended up.
“I had in the third set a couple of times 30-all and some chances really where I was in the rally, but he came up with some incredible groundstrokes winners, and that’s it,” said Djokovic. “I have to shake his hand and congratulate him for the win.”
For Djokovic, it’s just another sign that this year isn’t like last. Isner’s a “freak” alright, but “2011 Djokovic” closes that first set out and wins in straights. This season the more I see the more I think the shine is coming off the Serb.
And now he has Miami to defend with no titles in best-of-3 set tournaments since last summer in Canada. Strange.
Isner’s weekend of course isn’t done by any stretch. Not only does he still have a doubles final against Rafael Nadal, he’ll play the singles championship also Sunday against Roger Federer. The Swiss hammered a hapless-looking Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in the 28th meeting of their trancesdent rivalry.
Federer came into the match with some health questions, but honestly it looked like Nadal was the one with the flu. Be it Federer, the cool, wet, windy conditions or the 3-hour delay at the start, Nadal was just awful right from the start.
Federer saved early breakpoints in his first game, then broke and went up 3-0.
Nadal roared back to tie at 3-3 before Federer reeled off three more to take the set and then go up 5-2 in the second.
In the swirling wind and light rain, Nadal finally began to find some range and comfort clawing a break back. Then with Federer about to serve at 5-4 Rafa curiously took a bathroom break.
Federer, though, was dialed-in and untroubled. A scintialling 30-30 point gave Roger matchpoint, but we’d have one more twist. The rain grew heavier and the match was halted but only for a few minutes. With the weather uncertain Federer, like Isner did, stepped up at 40-30 and crushed an ace out wide to end it.
“He played a great game to come back into the match, and he played also a good game at 5-4,” Federer said. “I knew it was going to be tough serving it out. Obviously there is a bit more relief on top of that with the wait, having to wait at 30-40. That was special in itself. I know how well I played tonight, so I’m just really pleased with my performance.”
“Very happy that a tough week like this gives me an opportunity to win the tournament,” said Federer. “Really it’s unbelievable that I never thought I would come so far. It’s been a great week so far, and it’s another opportunity tomorrow to make it even more special. Obviously conditions were tough today, and against one of my greatest rivals, it’s always nice if you come out on top, so I’m very, very happy.”
For Nadal, depsite the strong start to the week and the extended time off after Australia, the end results was the same: Another tournament without a title. Rafa’s forehand had no weight and his footwork foundered.
“I was feeling the ball great,” said Nadal whose last title came at the French Open. “I felt I’m ready to compete and ready to win the match, but later the crazy wind very difficult for me to play with a clear tactic.
“I lost court, I had more mistakes, and I think he played very aggressive. He played fantastic. His serve was with high percentage, and I wasn’t able to play my usual tactic against him with that conditions. He hit the balls, every one inside the court, and the weather conditions makes the topspin more difficult for me.”
Federer collects his first outdoor hardcourt win over Nadal since 2005 Miami, and his 10th victory overall against his lefty rival, though is still down 18-10. Roger also gets a little revenge on Nadal for the Australian Open, and tomorrow he’ll try to avenge the Davis Cup defeat to Isner as he seeks his 15th straight match win 73rd career ATP crown, 4th in the California desert.
“I know how difficult it’s going to be tomorrow,” he said. “John is playing great tennis at the moment, and I’m sure for a long period of time. It’s great and exciting for American tennis, and I’m happy it’s happening in the final, this rematch for me. I look forward to that a lot.”
As Federer said, it’s going to be tough. Big John is serving in rythym and I don’t think he’ll have a down day like Nadal did. Federer will have to again serve well and above all hone in on the Isner serve, if he can.
Djokovic did well in his service returns but I thought played far too passive during rallies, almost accepting the breaker. Federer won’t make that mistake. If he can avoid the tiebreakers he should get through. Isner, though, is going to pressure Federer every since chance he gets. So Federer will have to be on guard for an all-out assault from the American.
“I expect a hell of a match,” said Isner looking ahead to Sunday. “Roger, since I did beat him, he has not lost. He’s won 14, 15 matches in a row, whatever it may be. He’s obviously playing well.”
Isner is also trying to complete a unbelievable trifecta of beating Djokovic, Federer and Nadal (in doubles) all in the same weekend. Just wow! I just wonder if he’s fit enough to do it.
And if Federer can pull through he’ll have revenge on the only two players two beat him since the US Open and gain strength in that march to the No. 1 ranking. Dead at age 30, says who?
In the earlier women’s final, plug your ears because it’s scream queens Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2. Azarenka has been this year’s Djokovic racing out to a 22-0 mark, and tomorrow I think she’ll get to 23.
ABC will have live coverage of both finals starting at 2pm ET. Enjoy the madness!
SUNDAY INDIAN WELLS SCHEDULE
STADIUM 1 start 11:00 am
 V Azarenka (BLR) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA
Not Before 1:00 PM
 J Isner (USA) vs  R Federer (SUI) – ATP
Not Before 2:30 PM
M Lopez (ESP) / R Nadal (ESP) vs J Isner (USA) / S Querrey (USA)
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