Tennis

Isner survives Davydenko; Murray breezes

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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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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.

Nikolay Davydenko was just the man to offer a tough test for a new member of the Top 10 Club on a hot, humid day at Key Biscayne.

John Isner, to his credit, passed the test in his opening match in the Sony Ericsson Open — but it was never easy.

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Isner came through 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, getting his act together after what he called an ugly first set and serving out with a flourish — four first serves clocked at 137, 135, 136 and 129 mph.

How big is that? Huge in terms of winning a tennis match against a talented opponent, and it offers clear proof of just how high Isner's confidence is right now after a start to the year that has seen him beat Roger Federer on clay in Davis Cup and Novak Djokovic on his way to reaching the final at Indian Wells last week.

"It comes from winning matches," Isner replied when asked about his confidence.

"When I have the chance to serve out the match, the match is completely on my racquet and I'm confident on my serve. So, for instance today, I had 0-30 in the previous game and could have won 6-3. But I didn't. I didn't bat an eye. I went out there and made four first serves and got off court as quick as possible."

It was, indeed, an impressive way to finish, even though some of what had gone before was less so.

Isner's forehand, which is his second-biggest weapon after his serve, still has a tendency to slip out of gear and there were several unforced errors off that flank during the final set. But nothing fazes the big man at the moment — not even the sight of seeing the Russian stand 10 feet behind the baseline to receive serve.

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"Yeah, it was interesting, but nothing I haven't seen before," he said. "I had a feeling he might do that, because this court takes the kick serve very well. So if someone stands in close, it's going to bounce up really high.

"If he's that far back, chances are I'm going to be able to start the point with my forehand, which I feel comfortable doing."

So, in the end, it all worked out for Isner, while Davydenko, who played so brilliantly to win this tournament in 2008, went away like so many other people, frustrated at not being able to deal with that giant serve.

Earlier, Andy Murray put the unwanted memory of two consecutive first-match defeats in his adopted hometown behind him by beating Colombian Alejandro Falla, 6-2, 6-3.

Reunited with coach Ivan Lendl, Murray overcame a slightly nervous beginning against the experienced left-hander to produce a performance befitting a former champion here.

That success came in 2009, when he defeated Novak Djokovic in the final. The following year he lost his first match to Mardy Fish, a minor shock at the time as the American had not made his move into the top 10 at that stage.

But 12 months ago, Murray suffered a far more humiliating defeat at the hands of Alex Bogomolov, Jr., who was not ranked in the top 100 at the time.

This week, he was trying put a first round loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at Indian Wells out of his mind — a task he said was not difficult, as Lendl had just told him to forget it.

"Everyone has a bad day, don't overthink it," the former world No. 1 said, and that probably was just what Murray wanted to hear.

The struggle Murray has had on American hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami these past two years is strange, because a slow, hard court suits his game to perfection, and each time he has arrived off the back of recent success — in 2011 he was a finalist at the Australian Open, and this year he was a semifinalist in Melbourne and a finalist in Dubai, where he defeated Djokovic.

But the Scot's mind was all over the place after losing the Australian Open final to Roger Federer, because he really thought he was going to win, and he took the defeat hard.

Lendl is not a sentimentalist and knows how to deal with errant thoughts. He also has other qualities that Murray spelled out in his press conference.

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"I think one of the hardest things for a coach, especially for one who used to play, is actually being able to put himself in your shoes and understand the way your mind works," said Murray.

"A lot of ex-players view things like, 'This is how I would have done it,' or 'That's how I would have played.'

"Ivan has been very, very good with that. He asks a lot of questions to understand why you, maybe, chose to hit a certain shot or what your favorite shots in certain moments are. He also understands that there are a lot of things coaches can do that maybe annoy players.

"Often players are not open enough to say anything to them because they don't want to hurt their feelings or whatever. But he's like, 'If there's anything I am doing you don't like, just tell me.'"

There are signs Murray has found someone who can provide the missing link and lift him from a consistent Grand Slam semifinalist — he has not lost before that stage in his last five Slams — into the winner's circle. The next six months will tell.

Murray will have a big test in the next round when he faces the young Canadian Milos Roanic, who serves just as big as Isner. Raonic defeated the French veteran Arnaud Clement 7-6, 6-2.

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