Legg Mason 07: John Isner, Roddick, and the Doubles
by Ray Bowers
with Photography by Pablo Sanfrancisco
The quality of the men's draw at this year's Legg Mason Classic was
disappointing, as was the case at Indianapolis and Los Angeles--the two earlier events
in the heavily promoted U.S. Open Series. Of the Top 24 players in the
year-to-date race, only Andy Roddick and Tommy Haas were on hand here in Washington.
A player scarcely noted, essentially without pro experience, became the main
story of the event, a national sporting figure almost overnight. His amazing
run made this year's tournament the most appealing in years.
John Isner was well known to followers of intercollegiate tennis. He came to
the Legg Mason as NCAA singles runner-up this spring after four years leading
the University of Georgia team, the 2007 national champions.
He arrived as a
last-minute replacement after the withdrawal of Fernando Gonzalez. At 6-9 with
high shoulders and aged 22, he looked like a basketball player.
reputation as a fine server was recognized, understandably going with his tall
physique. But not generally appreciated until on display this week were his
remarkable forecourt skills and complementing court sense, along with an unfailing
composure during play and a commitment to tactics designed to obtain the most
from his weapons.
I watched him on Tuesday afternoon against his first opponent, Tim Henman.
Isner frequently clocked first-serve velocities in the 130-mph range to a
maximum of over 140. For most of the first set, however, Henman appeared slightly
superior in all departments other than in serving.
The conditions were hot and humid, with little circulation inside the heatbox
that was Stadium Court. Little by little, Isner reduced his episodes of inept
play and began increasingly to find the edges with his potent forehand. He
lost the first set, then recovered to take the second as Henman began to look
less than fresh. The big serving by Isner intensified during the third-set
tiebreaker, where the tall American closed out matters convincingly.
On Wednesday the pro rookie took on the tournament's #8 seed, Ben Becker.
Both men were hard servers, though it was Isner's heavier serving weaponry that
kept matters close. The critical mini-break in the third-set tiebreaker came on
a magnificent all-court point, where Isner delivered a perfect
baseline-sweeping lob and a scrambling Becker's lob reply fell just outside the lines. Isner
closed out the tiebreak game (and the match) with two unreturned serves.
Given Isner's obviously mature composure on the court, I was a little
surprised at his animated manner during his post-match press conference. John
chattered away telling how thrilling this week had been for him. He went on to explain
that his ability to concentrate on each forthcoming point had not come easily
to him, but that now he felt it was an important strength.
On Thursday, John narrowly defeated the smallish lefty Wayne Odesnik, 21, in
three tiebreak sets. Odesnik seemed by far the fresher toward the end, where
John was now offering little resistance in Odesnik's serving games. But John
took lots of time between points to summon his remaining strength to continue
delivering service bombs. He closed out the match with two untouched service
John's foe on quarter-final Friday was Tommy Haas, the tournament #2 seed,
who had been out of action since his injury-related withdrawal at Wimbledon.
Once again John's serve held up well, still measuring in the 120's and 130's and
occasionally higher. His serves were especially difficult in their high
bounces, produced by his unusually high point of launch. John finished the match
with a total of 30 aces, Haas with 19. Tommy played with good confidence and
self-control, and was usually satisfied to bunt back returns in hopes of
initiating long exchanges, where Tommy's polished ground game was likely to prevail.
Isner won the first set--the only time this happened all week--but Tommy
stiffened to reach second-set tiebreak, which he won with some more authoritative
service returns. The third-set tiebreaker was also a nailbiter. Servers lost only
one point in the twelve points played in that game, but it was enough for
another narrow victory by Isner. Once again, the tall American's resolve at
critical moments seemed unquenchable.
Isner's Saturday night showdown with Gael Monfils, who had been brilliant in
beating Safin in straight sets the previous date, gave the Stadium perhaps its
most exciting match in years. John's weapons were at their best, and Monfils
used his unmatched court mobility to answer much of John's net play, including
many of the American's bids for drop-volley winners. But when forced to hit
from deep court, which sometimes seemed his own preference, Gael's passing
shots were too often inaccurate and also, rather frequently, softish.
The drama unfolded as if by script. Sets one and two were split, both settled
in tiebreakers. In the third set, the score reached five games all, where
neither player had yet lost serve all evening. By then the evening cooling and
rising humidity sapped some of the energy from both men's serves, and aces had
become distinctly fewer. (For the night Monfils led in the count of aces,
25-23.) In the eleventh game of set three, Gael seemed at last atop John's big
serves, and the French star delivered several strong returns thereby producing the
first service break of the match. But needing only to hold service one more
time, Gael became victim of tennis's signature bugaboo. John won the first
point by coming forward behind his own return of serve--a tactic seldom tried by
either player this night. Gael next double-faulted, falling behind love-30. He
recovered to 30-all, but his first-serve then vanished, and John took over,
closing out the game with another net charge.
Thus yet another Isner match would end in a deciding tiebreaker. But the
result now seemed predictable. John continued his recent aggressive tactics,
winning seven of the game's nine points against a worthy but now forlorn opponent.
RODDICK AND ISNER
Meanwhile Andy Roddick had a close call on Thursday night, an evening where
he played neither his best tennis nor his worst. His opponent was Radek
Stepanek, whose fine, aggressive play the previous date suggested that he was capable
of making things difficult for Andy.
For the most part the tennis was both attractive and evenly matched. Both men
served and stroked with heavy weight, Andy's deliveries usually carrying
somewhat the greater punch, and both were very willing, sometimes eager, to come
forward on the attack, often behind an aggressive ground stroke and also
occasionally directly behind serve. There were occasional spells of defensive
exchange, where Radek seemed the more comfortable, and also quite a few episodes
where both men moved each other back-and-forth and side-to-side, using the full
Roddick won the first set behind a single break of serve, Stepanek the second
behind two breaks. Through much of the third set, Stepanek seemed the
slightly stronger player, attaining a break point in game five and two more in game
nine. Andy survived these crises by producing his best. But Radek then
faltered badly in game twelve, rather suddenly, when he produced two soft-backhand
errors amid spells of extremely non-aggressive hitting.
Andy's other major hurdle was a large one, in the person of Ivo Karlovic,
6-10, a huge server with a potent net game and rapidly improving all-court
skills. Andy managed to prevail in two tiebreak sets, both decided by a
single-minibreak margin. Andy's serves carried the greater velocities, up to 151 mph--his
fastest in several years, he afterwards said. Ivo's carried the advantage of
his 6-10 height, so that Ivo won the count of aces, 19-12. An on-the-run
backhand pass from deep behind baseline gave Andy the final minibreak. Andy
afterwards explained that as he managed to nudge back his serve-return he immediately
began running to the opposite corner of the court, appreciating that Ivo
usually volleyed to the open court.
Looking to his final-round meeting with John Isner, Andy Roddick was now well
warned of Isner's considerable strengths. Further preparation arose from
Andy's semi-final match against Karlovic, whose 6-10 height and strengths in
serving and at net almost identically mirrored those of Isner. Further, although
Andy was not entirely fresh, his road to the Sunday final had been much easier
than John's. There had been a first-round bye for Andy and then much shorter
matches than John's. (John had also played a tough doubles match.) Further, most
of Andy's play had been under the lights, away from the brutal midsummer Sun.
His only daytime match had been the day before, Saturday, but that scheduling
too had been to Andy's advantage, as it gave him more rest directly before
the final than John, who played to near-exhaustion Saturday night. John admitted
to tiredness on taking the court Sunday.
Matters began encouragingly for Isner, who for several games picked up at the
level he had shown all week. If the aces were a bit less forthcoming than
before, the fine net attacking seen at the end against Monfils on Saturday night
was sharper than ever. In Andy's second serving game, Andy slipped behind by a
break point, and for a moment it seemed the impossible might indeed be
unfolding. But Andy at once righted himself behind his own superb serving weapon.
Minor trouble quickly ensued for John when he double-faulted to reach 30-all in
the next game, but an ace overcame the moment. But two games later, John again
serving, the rookie contributed two quick volleying errors, then an errant
forehand, and finally another error at net--a lost serving game at love. Roddick
then closed out the set firmly, losing only one point in his last three
Isner seemed tired--nothing new there--but he still played with resiliency
throughout the second set as both players held serves to reach tiebreak. Andy's
forehand remained strong and reliable, keeping Isner on the move in rallies and
helping collect the victory in the tiebreaker. Andy thus collected ranking
points that, it would seem, should assure his seeding in the top four at Masters
Series Cincinnati, following his immediate appearance at Montreal.
Isner has accepted a wild-card invitation also to play at Cincinnati. His
success against the stronger field there will tell much as to his likely future.
An eventual place somewhere between, say, Justin Gimelstob and Pete Sampras
(both of whom I greatly admire) seems safe to say. For the immediate present,
his emergence adds an intriguing dimension to pro tennis, especially in America.
The 16-pair doubles draw looked attractive, including four members of the
world's top ten along with several newcomer pairs and other interesting
combinations. As play unfolded, all pairs played aggressively from start to finish.
Everyone moved to net directly behind all serves, all pairs relentlessly
threatened the center area of net, and all used the I-formation at least occasionally
in order to compound the problems confronting serve-returner. Serves were
usually forcing, and serve-returners answered with as much punch and variety as
they could summon. There was absolutely no "one-up, one-back" doubles widely
seen elsewhere, at least not by design. The speed of play meant that most shots
and court movement were instinctive, within whatever tactic agreed upon by the
partners prior to each serve.
To comment on the special scoring used in pro doubles aside from the Slams, I
again liked the no-ad scoring scheme. It seemed to me that every game was
more interesting because of the raised possibility of losing serve. The danger
became felt any time a receiving pair slipped ahead in a game or merely reached
score 40-30, two points from break. I also deem the match tiebreak scheme to
be acceptable for the sake of improving the predictability of match duration.
Most fans seemed to relish the onset of a match tiebreak.
The early doubles matches were generally played on outside courts, where
crowd attendance and engagement was very good. It was pleasing that doubles were
scheduled daily in the evening hours, as many fans arrived well after the
customary 4 P.M. start of play.
THE BRYANS AND THE OTHERS
Has it been nine years since the twins, fresh from Stanford University,
brought their refreshing energy and dazzling style of play in their debut here?
Today, at age 29, the Bryans are at the peak of their profession--year-end
holders of the world #1 ranking in 2005 and 2006 and currently well ahead in the
2007 year-to-date race. They have achieved the career Grand Slam, having won
each Slam at least once, the Australian Open twice including in 2007. They have
been enormously successful as Davis Cup stalwarts for their country. Theirs is
a hard-hitting style combining power hitting, extreme aggressiveness in
forecourt, and a probably unprecedented level of teamwork--assets that together
define today's doubles at the highest level. It is tempting to start comparing
their credentials with those of past champions as candidates for greatest-ever
But early in the week I turned my attention to the others. I watched the
departure of the pair Butorac-Murray, who earlier this year scored an overall W-L
record of 8-2 in the grass-court events at Queens, Nottingham, and Wimbledon.
Jamie Murray at 21, is the slightly older brother of Andy Murray. Eric
Butorac, 26, is from Minnesota. Both are lefties--tallish, pleasant in court manner,
both of them firm servers and serve-returners. Murray was the more impressive
in his quickness and confidence. Now, they split the first two sets against
opponents Wes Moodie and Todd Perry. Moodie-Perry then won the match tiebreak
game used in doubles instead of a third set. Moodie, Wimbledon doubles champion
in 2005, seemed the dominant server, returner, and threat at net.
Also disappointing was the Stanford University pair Jason Lipsky and David
Martin, who had reached the final at Indianapolis the previous week against the
Bryans and had beaten Butorac-Murray at both Los Angeles and Indy this summer.
I had admired their play on tv, but on this date matters went poorly for
them. Against opponents Ben Becker and Igor Kunitsyn, the Stanford boys,
especially Martin, who is lefty, showed their quickness of foot and hand. In picking
serve-return roles, they put both forehands in the middle. (i.e., Martin
returned from the deuce court.) The Americans won the first set by 61, lost the
second by identical score, and then lost the match tiebreak game by the narrowest
of margins, showing extreme disappointment at losing. It seemed to me that they
had become unhinged by the very heavy hitting of Becker after the first set.
Mahesh Bhupathi and Tim Henman made an intriguing pair, though they lost in
the second round to seeded Hanley-Ullyett. Mahesh's soft hands in volleying and
stroking were unmistakable, but the former champion as partner of Paes and
later Mirnyi seemed to make as many errors and mistakes as his singles-artist
partner, Henman. Tim was clearly out of place amid the ferocious net play
against Hanley-Ullyett, but he otherwise contributed fairly well.
Also interesting were Chris Haggard and Ivo Karlovic, who nearly defeated
seeded pair Martin Damm and Leander Paes in the second round. Haggard, another
lefty, brought quickness and ingenuity to the partnership, very well supporting
his dominating partner. Paes had been brilliant in the first round against
Isner and his NCAA conqueror Dev Varman (from University of Virginia), having
almost single-handedly denied the collegians the victory. Haggard-Karlovic were
better prepared for Leander's flare at net, but not quite enough to claim the
The four seeded pairs all made their way to the semis, where Damm-Paes faced
the fine Israeli pair Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram. The Israelis played good,
tight tennis--quick at net, technically solid. Damm provided the heavier
serving and hitting roles from the ad court, Ram the same for his pair. The match
tiebreak was one-sided, the Israelis contributing no mistakes. Martin Damm made
several errors, in one case expecting his partner to pounce on a
softish serve return at mid-net. Both pairs used the I formation heavily whenever
matters became critical, including in the match tiebreak. Erlich-Ram thus earned
a place in the final against the brothers, who won one-sidedly over
Hanley-Ullyett in their semi.
The Sunday final was evenly contested, the brothers clearly below their form
of the previous evening. Mike Bryan contributed a poor serving game early, a
gift returned later in the first set by Erlich. The set-ending tiebreak game
reached five points all, whereupon Andy Ram mistakenly decided against hitting
an opponent's shot that barely grazed the baseline. The Bryans then closed the
set with a serve-and-putaway.
The Israelis broke early in set two, Bob Bryan seemingly slow in reacting to
an attackable ball at net. Midway in the concluding match tiebreak game,
Erlich errored, and the visitors never equalized. It had been a tepid match, the
crowd gradually filling, with relatively few extended points. Critical mistakes
rather than sparkling play seemed to decide the outcome.
But for the brothers, it was the third consecutive triumph here in
Washington, with prospects ahead excellent for success in Montreal, Cincinnati, and at
Best wishes to all for more great tennis before New York.
Extensive additional photography from the Legg Mason Tennis Classic is available in the Tennis Server Pro Tennis Showcase.
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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.