Isner falls short; Federer sets record

BY foxsports • November 12, 2011

Heartbreak, absolute heartbreak for John Isner who, three times, stood on the very brink of reaching the final of an ATP Masters 1000 tournament for the first time when he held match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in front of 14,000 frenzied, but fair, Parisians at the Bercy Omnipalais.

But, in truth, Isner didn’t play well enough on any of match point to merit victory against the man who won this title in 2008 — and the chance to play a top-form Roger Federer on Sunday.

The opportunities came in the 12 game of the deciding set after Isner had dug himself out of an 0-40 situation three games earlier. Tsonga put himself in trouble by giving Isner the first match point with a double fault. But the American netted off a second serve with a weak forehand. On the second, a short return enabled Tsonga to pummel away a winner. And, having earned himself a third shot with a stunning backhand pass down the line at full stretch, Isner blew it by putting a backhand long.

Total frustration — but welcome to the big time, Big John. You’ll get used to it.

And he will. Because Isner, 26, has improved beyond all recognition the past two years, and his two title-winning performances in the summer at Newport, RI, and Winston-Salem, NC, helped toward a streak of consistency in which he had won 25 of 31 matches going into this semifinal.

He has developed good touch and his forehand is now a weapon, although he admits his backhand still needs some work. He will put in the time during the brief offseason. But Tsonga provided the reality check by recovering from a slow start to play the better tennis as the match wore on, energized all the way by a boisterous crowd that has become more knowledgeable over the years.

Roland Garros attracts real tennis fans; Bercy draws from locals who come to this vast stadium to watch anything from truck racing to ice skating. But they do get into it, and whenever Tsonga was in trouble, waves of support came rolling down from the stands.

Isner felt that his best chance came when he had a break point in the third game of the second set. Having just won the first, he was in control and he basically got unlucky. Tsonga skipped over to hit a forehand but didn’t catch it cleanly, and it caught the tape.

“Could easily have gone over or not gone over,” Isner said. “It kind of hit the net and landed deep, and I missed. If I go up a set and 2-1, I like my chances there. But I didn’t play my best in those tiebreakers. He definitely outplayed me.”

That much was true. In the first, Isner put a bad forehand wide to trail 6-1, and then Tsonga hit an ace. In the second, still smarting from missing those match points, Isner lost his first service point and then double-faulted to give the Frenchman three match points. Jo answered the No 1 rule — if you get a chance, take it.

Federer, who learned that long ago, he was at the top of his game, sweeping into the final of this BNP Paribas Masters with a sweetly clinical demolition of Tomas Berdych 6-4, 6-3.

After 13 years on the tour, Federer seems to create records with every match he plays. By reaching this final at Bercy, situated on the eastern edge of Paris, for the first time, Federer has become the first player to make the final of all nine ATP Masters 1000 tournaments. A semifinal showing was his best effort here before this week, but he certainly seems primed and ready to make the most of it.

Overall, Federer will play in his 99th tour final Sunday, just a couple of days after reaching the 800 mark in career wins. When will it end? Not soon if the Swiss goes on playing like this.

Berdych said that he felt he was playing the Federer of old. "I guess that's a nice comment," Federer said, grinning. "The Roger Federer of old, he lost sometimes five matches a year and won 80 or 90. So I'll take that as a compliment."

Federer admitted he would be nervous before the final. "Normal nervous," he said. "I think my experience is going to control my nerves a bit. I hope I get off to a good start. That's what I'm nervous about."

Roger Federer nervous? Yes, even this seemingly phlegmatic maestro gets nervous. And he talked about it.

"I get nervous when I'm on a tennis court, not in the rest of my life because there's no need to," Federer said. "But on court, there's no one to lean on their shoulder and say, 'Cuddle me a bit,' so I have to get through it myself.

"You get a little bit iffy, uneasy. Your pulse starts going, you sweat maybe a bit more. You hit balls in the frame a bit more. The motion is not so fluid. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. You try and control it, but sometimes you don't because the opponent does have a big say in tennis."

Interesting. Before Federer came along, many people thought Australian Rod Laver, the only man to twice capture the Grand Slam (winning all four majors in a year), was the greatest player of all time. He got nervous, too. But his advice was simple. "We all get nervous," he used to tell me. "The thing is to recognize it and give the ball a bit of an extra nudge."

A nudge in Laver lingo meant whirling that mighty left arm a little faster and whacking the hell out of the ball. It seemed to work.

Berdych was sporting enough to try to refute any suggestions he was tired after his physically demanding victory over Andy Murray the day before. But Berdych certainly seemed a step slow, especially in the beginning when he lost his first service game to give Federer a confidence-boosting advantage.

"No, no I was feeling good," said the big Czech. "I mean, even my game was quite well. But losing my serve in the first game — yeah, that was a mistake. But he played just too good for me today, definitely deserves to go through."

Federer felt he had improved his game from the baseline compared to previous matches and was moving so smoothly he was able to sweep away winners off that glorious forehand as if he were on the practice court. The 14,000 lapped it up.

Having won against the odds on clay at Roland Garros two years ago, Federer would join Andre Agassi as the only man to win both Paris tournaments if he won here. He'd love to chalk that one up, too.

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