Tennis

Isner wins drama-filled five-setter

David Nalbandian
David Nalbandian had much to say during and after the match.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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To the delight of the host nation, Queensland teenager Bernard Tomic put Sam Querrey's recovery on hold by beating the American 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 but one can't get rid of John Isner that easily.

The Marathon Man did not quite need the 11 hours he took to beat Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 but four and a half seemed quite long enough by the time Isner rode his luck to beat talented Argentine David Nalbandian, 4-6, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 10-8 in the second round of the Australian Open.

Isner was delighted — especially as he had lost to Marin Cilic on that same Margaret Court Arena 12 months before 9-7 in the fifth — but Nalbandian was furious. And with good reason.

At 8-8 in the fifth set, having missed two break points against the towering American serve, Nalbandian was caught up in a controversy that ended with him demanding that French umpire Kader Nouni be sacked. The sequence of events went like this: Isner's first serve was called out but Nouni overruled, giving the American an ace. Not quite understanding what had happened Nalbandian waited a few seconds and then challenged the call. Nouni refused the request, saying that the Argentine had taken too long.

So the ace stood and, not for the first time in the match, Nalbandian smashed his racket. "He told me he overruled it," Nalbandian said afterward, when he had calmed down. "I say challenge. Not big deal. But he won't do it. He said ‘Too late'. So somebody from ATP can explain me this situation? I mean, what is this? This is a Grand Slam."

That, in effect, might be part of the problem. Players on the men's tour seldom have serious problems with umpires who work for the ATP. At Slams, which are not ATP controlled events, you get a mixture of umpires, some of whom just work Davis Cup and some only the WTA tour. Nouni, who is a very experienced official, works for the WTA.

"It's ridiculous playing this kind of tournament with this kind of umpire," said Nalbandian, moving himself into territory that could get him into trouble with the Grand Slam Committee. "I mean, what the umpires need, press? Name? Be on the picture tomorrow? Incredible. Anyway I did not lose for that but that's a very bad situation. I don't think he (Nouni) gonna be able to do these sort of matches. I mean, no doubt about it."

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Isner, whose incorrectly called ace stood as a result, admitted "that break went in my favor, for sure."

Isner, who felt he returned well, did not pretend that he had the match under control during the first three sets. "He was just so solid," he said. "He had the answer for everything in those rallies. He was just winning them. He was way too good for me. Fortunately for me I had my serve. One of the things that help me is my service motion. I feel like it's pretty natural so when I'm running on fumes and my legs aren't really underneath me, I'm still able to get free points."

It is not often that Isner gets broken five times in three sets but the former Wimbledon finalist, who has given Roger Federer and other top players a great deal of trouble over the years, is good enough to do that and was justified in thinking this was a match he should have won.

Next up for Isner is the Spanish left-hander Feliciano Lopez and Isner says he will be ready. "I don't anticipate fatigue being a factor," he said. "I think I'll have more in the tank than I did after the Mahut match at Wimbledon. If I lose, it will be because I got outplayed."

After his comeback from two sets to love down against Fernando Verdasco on Monday, Australian fans were anxious about how their 19-year-old star would stand up against Querrey and the mood was tense in a packed Rod Laver Arena when Tomic lost the first set. But the young man obviously has a good tennis brain and a fighting spirit for, once again, he found a way to work out his problems and prosper.

"The first set was really, really good serving from him," said Tomic. "I think I was guessing the wrong way in the first set and in the second set I started guessing the right way. And then he started missing a lot more first serves which gave me a chance to break."

Being unable to maintain pressure with his big weapon was frustrating for Querrey who is still finding his way back after elbow surgery last summer. He played well in patches but consistency can only come with more matches and a rise in confidence. Having seen his ranking plunge from 18 at the end of 2010 to 93 a year later, Sam still has a way to go.

Postscript: Isner said after his match that, although he felt twinges of cramp in his thigh he did not call for the trainer because he thought it was against the rules to get treatment for cramps — just as Mardy Fish did when his opponent, Alejandro Falla, was treated for cramps earlier in the day. But, in fact, both the Grand Slams and the ATP allow trainers to give massage for cramps at changeovers. So both Fish and Isner were mistaken.

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