A little more than six years ago, a lanky, towering American playing for the University of Georgia stood across the net from a skinny, 5-foot-11 Indian representing the University of Virginia in the 2007 NCAA Division I men’s singles championship match.
The 6-foot-9 John Isner wore a white shirt and dark shorts and showcased an explosive serve to a crowd of 2,000 partisan fans at his home court in Athens, Ga. Somdev Devvarman, wore a dark shirt and white shorts and couldn’t quite break that big serve, but his finesse conquered Isner’s power and Devvarman won the title in a third-set tiebreaker.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long,” Isner said. “I remember that match like it was yesterday.”
Thursday, Isner and Devvarman took the court in Rock Creek Park in the third round of the Citi Open, playing for the first time since that spring. Their bodies had changed little, their outfits (royal blue shirts) were almost identical, and the crowd wasn’t quite so one-sided.
But this time Devvarman’s precision was not enough. Isner was simply better more often, and took a hard-fought victory, 7-5, 7-5.
In 2007, Isner was explosive, but Devvarman’s game was more complete. The rivals dominated collegiate tennis, but gave each other fits.
“That’s actually the last time we’ve played, which is kind of crazy.” said Isner, who said he’s played the No. 4 seed from that tournament, Kevin Anderson, nine times in ATP events. “I knew eventually our paths would cross.”
Given how consistently those paths intertwined in college, it’s hard to believe it took this long.
But as the years passed, the rest of Isner’s game caught up with his serve. He has established himself as a consistent top 25 player. He reached No. 9 in the world rankings in 2012, becoming an ATP mainstay and a force on tour.
Devvarman has neither Isner’s star power nor visibility, but has managed to win more than $1 million in prize money during his career. . He has enjoyed fewer tour wild-card bids and sponsors’ exemptions early on than other, more prominent players like Isner, and as a result Devvarman took longer to establish his place. By 2011, he’d climbed to a career-high ranking of No. 62, though he’s currently 129th.
The two still trash talk on Twitter whenever Georgia and Virginia play each other, though neither brought up the now-ancient rivalry before Thursday’s match.
“I knew it was going to be a tough match. Somdev’s an extremely tough opponent — he’s always been tough for me, especially,” Isner said.
“I always tease him I was able to get the team ring, something he was never able to do, but he won the NCAA singles title, something I was never able to do. [He’s] a great player and he’s also a good friend.”