We know tennis players are maturing later these days, but this was ridiculous.
Edouard Roger-Vasselin, playing in his first-ever ATP semifinal at the ripe old age of 29, produced easily the best performance of his not very distinguished 12-year pro career when he outplayed top seed John Isner 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 on a cold evening in the Delray Beach International on Saturday.
Isner’s 20 aces were rendered useless in the face of some fantastic returning and pin-point passing from the Frenchman, whose only other victory over a top-20 player came in 2009 when he defeated Juan Martin del Potro in Tokyo very soon after the Argentine returned from a long injury lay off.
Isner, too, has had injury problems of late — a knee injury forced him to miss the Australian Open — but he has been in the semifinal of San Jose since then and has been talking here of needing to take the pressure off himself and lower expectations. This, however, was a match he definitely did not expect to lose.
What shocked the giant American most was the way Roger-Vasselin handled his huge serve. By the time Isner was fending off break points at 1-3 in the second set to prevent a double break, he was winning only 61 percent of the first serves he put in play. Against Japan’s Go Soeda in the second round, Isner had lost only three points on his first serve in the entire match.
But the Frenchman’s returning was of a different class and Isner might have erred in not giving him more high-kickers to deal with in the ad court rather than relying on sheer power. For a player currently ranked 105 with a career high of 67, Roger-Vasselin’s accuracy off the ground was startling as he kept either passing Isner down the line, never an easy thing to do against a man with such a wide wing span, or taking him out of the play with backhand winners.
Isner’s best moments came at the end of the second set when he found some rhythm on his serve and broke back with some good returns of his own as an opponent who had never come close to an ATP final before wavered with his goal in sight.
However, Roger-Vasselin banished those nerves right at the start of the third set with some more brilliant returns and broke immediately. At 2-0, 0-40 on the Isner serve, the University of Georgia grad suddenly hit a purple patch on his serve and came up with five consecutive aces to save the break points and win the game. Even by Isner’s standards that was a rare achievement.
But it was not enough. Showing just what kind of head he had on his shoulders, Roger-Vasselin ensured that he did not give himself time to get hit by nerves a second time by adopting serve-and-volley tactics when he served for a place in the final. The volleys were crisp, too, and the tactics ruined any chance Isner had of breaking back.
The only mystery is why it has taken Roger-Vasselin so long to play like this. He is steeped in the game because his father, Christophe, was a top-30 player in the 1980s and upset Jimmy Connors to reach the semifinal of the French Open in 1983. The knowledge of how to play has always been there; making use of it with skills that are clearly evident has, until now, been the problem. Maybe it is not too late.
In Sunday’s final, Roger-Vasselin will play another man who came into this event with a ranking below 100, Ernests Gulbis. The erratic and temperamental Latvian won this tournament in 2010 but a poor 2012 saw his ranking slump even below it’s current position of 109, although it will rise now that he has made the final with a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 win over Germany’s 34-year-old Tommy Haas.
Haas had seemed poised for decisive breakthroughs when he led 15-40 on the Gulbis serve at 4-4 and then 0-40 at 5-5 in the final set, but Gulbis, who had kept a good lid on his temperament in the face of fierce winds that swept across the court in the afternoon, found enough first serves to dig himself out of trouble.
“I didn’t play that well but I kept fighting,” Gulbis said. “The wind was worst in the first two sets but then, in the third, I lost all the feel and timing on my forehand. So I decided to be aggressive and go for it. Then I started to play better.”
Asked how he felt on those critical points, Gulbis said, “You don’t feel anything; you play by reflex. All good decisions come from the subconscious. I’m not going to sit here and give you smart-ass answers about how I worked it out. There’s no time to make conscious decisions about which shot to play. The less thoughts you have in your head the better you play. If you think too much you get nervous and then you choke.”
Nerves may be on display on both sides of the net in Sunday’s unexpected but potentially fascinating final.