John Isner’s five-set defeat at the hands of Spain’s Feliciano Lopez left the United States without a player in final 16 of the Australian Open men’s singles for the first time ever in the Open era.
"That’s not a good effort," a dejected Isner said afterwards. "I was aware I was the last one going in and I wanted to do well. But it is very ugly. We will have to try and rectify that."
There were a couple of years in the early 1970s when, amazingly, no American men entered the tournament but, otherwise, there has never been a time when the US effort has come up so short. It is not a happy thought for Jim Courier’s Davis Cup team to take to Switzerland in a couple of weeks where Roger Federer is expected to be waiting for them.
Last November at the Paris Masters event, Isner had crushed Lopez 6-4, 6-4. But this time, the experienced Spanish left hander was at the top of his game and came through with a deserving 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 victory.
American hopes rose when Isner played a brilliant tiebreak in the fourth set, moving to 3-0 with a great forehand winner and then coming up with a beautifully constructed forehand half-volley pass as he ran forward. He closed it out 7-0 and seemed set for a big effort in the fifth.
But it never happened. Isner seemed nonplussed. "I wasn’t as sharp mentally as I should have been," he admitted. "Not sure what happened. It just got away from me and the set spiraled out of control. I wasn’t thinking much. I just didn’t play too well. It was a mental thing more than physical."
Isner had played nearly five hours against David Nalbandian two days before and went into the match with toes that soon started to bleed. "But the taping helped and it wasn’t too much of a problem," he said. "It wasn’t why I lost."
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer who, unusually, find themselves in the same half of the draw, both took a decisive step towards a potential semifinal meeting. Nadal defeated Lukas Lacko, a 24-year-old qualifier from Slovakia, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 while Federer was made to work harder by Ivo Karlovic before he could beat the giant Croat 7-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Nadal was pleased with his performance. "The match was really complete match, a very solid one," he said. "Very happy about my game. And the knee is fine."
Federer was equally upbeat. "I’m happy to be through in straight sets. "Ivo fights with what he has and makes it really complicated to be honest. You can never really play relaxed points. The first set was crucial."
It certainly was because Karlovic reached set point in the breaker and should have won it. He reacted to a hard return from Federer by stabbing back an involuntary stop volley which Roger raced onto. "Running up there I didn’t know what to do any more," Federer admitted. "Left, right, going too slow and he’s going to slam it. Let me try the lob, even though that’s not what you are supposed to do against him. I got sort of the angle right and was able to, maybe, to surprise him — we were that close to each other. So it was hard to react and it kind of worked."
It worked because Karlovic, reaching up way above his 6-foot-10 put the ball out. Then Federer came up with a superb service return winner off that massive serve and a point later the set was his.
They had played 10 times before and Federer had only dropped two sets in all those encounters so, with the momentum behind him, he had the confidence to produce some of his best tennis. "It’s been a good match for me and a good last week or so. No back issues at all today so it was a good day at the office."
Juan Martin del Potro kept himself on course for a possible quarterfinal meeting with Federer — the man he beat in the 2009 US Open final — with a swift 6-2, 6-3, 6-0 defeat of Tapei’s Yen-Hsun Lu but the match of the evening, maybe the tournament so far, was staged under the lights on Rod Laver.
The new local hero Bernard Tomic embedded himself in Aussie hearts by playing a fantastic match against Alexandr Dolgopolov and emerging the winner by 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3.
The style and tactics that these two young players employed had one harking back to a bygone age of sliced backhands and careful maneuvering about court — turning tennis back into the game of chess it used to be. Ken Rosewall and Manolo Santana would have recognized what was going on and have been thrilled to see it.
Tomic is a rare talent with a rare temperament. While the Ukrainian tried to up the tempo on occasion with well-judged shorties to the net, Tomic remained utterly calm and committed to his unfussed stroke play, changing the pace of his forehand with such sleight of hand that Dolgopolov was left lunging for balls he thought he had under control.
Tomic trailed 3-5 in the third set tiebreak but reeled off a stream of winners, earning five of the next six points to take it 8-6. The loss of the fourth set was shrugged off as well and, after his opponent had received courtside treatment for a back problem (which did not seem to hamper his movement) Tomic took charge again and, having broken for 4-1 in the fifth served out for victory like a veteran instead of a 19-year-old on the threshold of a great career.
After winning two rounds, including an upset victory over No. 24 seed Lucie Safarova in round one, Christina McHale exited in disappointing fashion when she lost 6-2, 6-0 to the former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic.
The disappointment factor was not the actual score but the fact that the match could have taken a different course had McHale grabbed any one of half a dozen chances to break the Serb’s serve in the opening games of the match. After 22 minutes the score was still 1-1 and Jankovic was having to fight to stay on equal terms with the 19-year-old American from Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
But, time and again on a crucial shot, the belief to press home an advantage was missing and, afterwards, McHale admitted that those chances on which she failed to capitalize lost her whatever chance she had of winning the match.
She had lost to Jankovic by an identical score when they met on clay at Charleston, S.C. last year. "And it was pretty much the same story," McHale admitted. "As the match went on I kept getting pushed further and further behind the baseline. She is very good at switching defense into attack which is something I try to do. But she is so much better at it than me at the moment."
The match had been moved onto Rod Laver Arena to fill a hole in the schedule but McHale insisted that did not make her nervous. "I was excited as I had never played on it before," she said. "And I started really well."
The next step forward for this talented young player is to continue as she begins.