By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009
When John Isner met Andy Roddick in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic two years ago, he was a bit awed by the stage, the opponent and the stakes, having graduated from Georgia and turned pro just a few weeks earlier.
In Saturday's reprise of the all-American matchup, coming in the tournament's semifinal round, Isner played with the abandon of an athlete who was every bit Roddick's equal.
The result was some riveting tennis, with Roddick, the tournament's three-time champion and chief box-office attraction, defeating his young challenger, 6-7 (7-3), 6-2, 7-5, to advance to Sunday's championship.
He'll face the tournament's defending champion, Juan Martín del Potro, in a battle of the world's fifth and sixth-ranked players.
Del Potro, 20, earned his spot in the finals by defeating Fernando González of Chile, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3, in a listlessly played match earlier in the day, with both complaining afterward that the heat and humidity prevented them from putting their best tennis on display.
But the caliber of the Roddick-Isner match more than compensated.
"John made me play my best tennis tonight," Roddick said. "Anything else wasn't going to get it done."
The top-seeded Roddick, 26, playing in his first tournament since Wimbledon, was the fresher player at the outset, having reached Saturday's semifinals as a result of three consecutive straight-sets victories.
As an unseeded player, Isner, 24, wasn't afforded a first-round bye and, as a result, needed four victories (and 10 sets of tennis, compared with Roddick's six) to reach the final four.
But the competitive difference between them was imperceptible in the first set, with the 6-foot-9 Isner and 6-2 Roddick taking turns blasting serves past each other at upward of 130 mph. Neither could break the other, and a tiebreak was needed to settle the deadlock.
No player boasts a better winning percentage in tiebreaks this season than Roddick (82.8). But Isner got the upper hand on this night, capitalizing on two forehand errors by Roddick to claim the opening set.
Roddick roared back in the second set, breaking Isner in the first game with a backhand passing shot down the line -- one of the welcome additions to his quiver since he started working with coach Larry Stefanki in December.
"It's a lot easier to hit a passing shot when you can get to it," Roddick said, alluding to his improved quickness and fitness since dropping 15 pounds and working out harder than he had earlier in his career.
With Isner sweating through his togs like a vandalized fire hydrant, Roddick broke the younger American a second time to close the set with ease.
With the match level at one set each, Isner ducked into the dressing room to change his outfit head to toe. He emerged with renewed aggression, blasting his serve (20 aces in all) and forehand with greater fury than Roddick.
Roddick didn't flinch. And when Isner followed his big serve to the net, Roddick ripped pinpoint passing shots by him more often than not.
The score knotted at four games each, Roddick did it again -- a forehand crosscourt pass -- to set up a badly needed break point. Isner countered with an overhead, and Roddick lunged full out, tumbling on the court, in a futile effort to retrieve it. It was the best-played game of the match -- one Isner won, despite four deuces and two break points. And he rewarded himself with his fourth fresh shirt of the match on the changeover that followed.
This time, it conjured no more magic. Roddick broke at 5-5 and served out the match with one final backhand pass down the line.
It was his 39th winner of the match, offset by just 12 unforced errors. And after searching for his serve in the tournament's early going, Roddick finally produced statistics that made him proud, landing 69 percent of his first serves, nine aces and just one double-fault.
Del Potro's victory took just more than two hours -- not because of sustained excellence by either player, but because for long stretches of the match, particularly in the second set, neither seemed particularly driven to win it.
"It was really hot," said González, who flew in earlier in the week from Chile, where it is winter. "I think we didn't play good tennis. I was really tired, missing many balls."
Del Potro conceded the same.
"I need to improve everything," said the 6-6 del Potro, who landed just 46 percent of his first serves. "If I have to play with Roddick, I should play much better than today because he has improved a lot his game."
Washington was the first tournament for both players since Wimbledon, and the rust and lethargy were evident. They combined for more unforced errors (63) than winners (56) in the match.
"I can play better than today," said González, who also competed in doubles. "But it's only the first tournament of the summer."
Note: Sunday's final day of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic will open with doubles at noon, with Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski of Poland facing Martin Damm of the Czech Republic and Robert Lindstedt of Sweden. Damm-Lindstedt advanced to the final on a walkover, after their semifinal opponents, the top-ranked tandem of Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, withdrew because of a left triceps injury suffered by Nestor.
The men's singles final will follow Sunday at 3 p.m.