MASON, Ohio – John Isner doesn’t have any delusions of grandeur when it comes to his tennis game. He knows who he is. He knows when he plays the Novak Djokovics of the ATP tour he can’t be ordinary.
“Simply put, he’s a better tennis player than me. He just is. His record proves that,” said Isner. “But on any given day, I think I can beat anyone.”
Friday was such a day for Isner. The American earned his way into the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open by beating top-ranked Djokovic 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5. Djokovic was up 40-15, one point away from sending the third set to a tiebreaker before Isner rallied to win the game and the match for his second career victory against a No. 1-ranked player.
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Djokovic helped matters with five double faults, including one in that final game, but Isner got 74 percent of his first serves into play, winning 55 of 69 possible points off those first serves, and limited Djokovic to just four break point opportunities. Isner missed nine previous break point chances against Djokovic but got the only one that mattered on his 10th try when Djokovic hit a return into the net to end the match.
“I had a lot of looks and I felt like I was playing well, very well outside of a few stretches where I didn’t put any returns in the court,” said Isner. “For the most part, I was putting the ball on the court and I was feeling good off the baseline. I felt like, when I had a chance, I played aggressively, and I did that well. I think I was able to put a little bit of pressure on him. It didn’t really pay off until the very end, but little things like me running around on second serves and hitting big forehands.”
Isner has been ranked as high as No. 9 in the world, which came last year after beating Djokovic at Indian Wells. That’s the only other time he has beaten a top-ranked player in six opportunities. Isner is the highest ranked American at No. 22 and is one of just five Americans ranked in the top 100 of the world.
This week is the first time in the history of the ATP rankings there is no American in the top 20.
That will change with Isner’s results here this week – he was already guaranteed to move up to No. 19 before Friday’s win – but it isn’t a stat he concentrates on much.
Since retiring from Wimbledon with a left knee injury, Isner has gone 15-3. This is the fourth time in his last five tournaments he has at least reached the semifinals, including winning at Atlanta last month.
“I knew coming in here this week that I was playing well; I knew there was a shot that I could do well here,” said Isner. “I did fall out of the top 20, but I think the rest of this year and the beginning of next year there’s a lot of room for me to keep gaining ground. I want to get back in the top 10 and I want to stay there for longer than I did last year.”
Isner’s serve is his strength. It always has been and whenever he’s successful it’s at the heart of that success. It was improvement in those other areas of the game that got him the win Friday. It was his third straight win this week over a player ranked ahead of him; he beat No. 11 Richard Gasquet on Wednesday and No. 10 Milos Raonic on Thursday.
“Well, he was there, so that means he’s capable,” said Djokovic of Isner returning to the top 10. “But one tournament, two tournaments don’t change anything. He has to be consistent and be successful in order to stay there.”
Isner will face Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, ranked No. 7, in Saturday’s semifinals, a rematch of the finals from Washington two weeks ago when del Potro beat Isner 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.
“He’s so good, you guys know that,” said Isner. “I hope I can just do a few things differently. I feel like I’m a bit fresher now than I was then, as I was coming off back-to-back events (Atlanta), but he was certainly the better player.
“Just as today, I’m going to have to play very well if I want to win.”