LONDON—It’s common wisdom that as a player ages, he seeks to play shorter points. In 33-year-old John Isner’s case, the desire is to expedite entire matches. Today, he took a major step in that direction.
For eight years, Isner’s signature Wimbledon moment was the 11-hour and five-minute match he won here in the first round of the 2010 edition of The Championships, beating Nicholas Mahut by the science fiction-like score of 70-68. But this afternoon, over the course of a mere two hours and six minutes, the ninth-seeded Isner reached his first Wimbledon quarterfinal with an emphatic 6-4, 7-6 (8), 7-6 (4) victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The energy that fueled this match could have launched a rocket to Saturn. Here was Tsitsipas, at 19 years old, a tennis infant, his racquet a rattle, clanging the cage in so many pleasing ways this fortnight.
Said the legendary acting coach Stella Adler, teacher of such icons as Marlon Brando and “Zorba the Greek” star Anthony Quinn, “The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.”
That was what Tsitipas would witness and learn as he entered a nearly packed Court Three (capacity 1,980). The wiry-thin Tsitsipas (6’3” and 180 pounds) embodied the purity of youth. He was fleet of foot, swift of hands, brazen, bold, a Greek soldier. Just behind the baseline, at the north end of the court, sat his support team of parents, coaches, family, friends.
“It’s important to have them on the stands supporting me and knowing that they want the best for me,” said Tsitsipas. “I feel like I have an army behind me that supports me on the worst moments and on the best moments. I feel actually stronger when they’re next to me and I’m doing well.”
WATCH—Match point from Isner’s win over Tsitsipas:
There is that notion of playing every point as if it were your last. But why not play every match as if it were your first, as if you at last had the opportunity to unleash your weapons upon the world? Yet to accumulate any competitive scar tissue, Tsitsipas relished the chance to step in and roll his luscious backhand, crack the forehand inside-out, throw up a toss and launch into his staccato-like service motion. And don’t forget the occasional dive volleys, for this was grass, pure earth, as green and vibrant as Tsitsipas.
Grass held different memories for Isner. While little in Isner’s playing style had compromised his body, the agony of losing four five-setters at Wimbledon no doubt had contributed to Isner’s belief that the All England Club was, as he put it, “a house of horrors.” Only once had Isner ever reached a Grand Slam singles quarterfinal, back at the 2011 Australian Open.
A question had always loomed over Isner’s game: Why didn’t he come to net more? But this year, aided by his brain trust of David MacPherson, my Tennis Channel colleague Justin Gimelstob and Rene Moller, Isner had staged his own greening campaign. The late Pancho Segura, a top player who as a coach had most notably worked with Jimmy Connors, had often said that the cornerstone of tennis was the ability to apply pressure—to disrupt and break up your opponent’s game. At the lower levels of tennis, that was done with mere consistency. Among pros, though, this took on many shapes. So it was that Isner’s attacking game took a jump forward this year, everything from court sense to approach shots to volleys improving.
Both players were well aware that this was going to be a match for gunslingers, of points flying by left and right until a scant few meant the difference. Of the 209 points played, less than 10 told the tale.
With Tsitsipas serving in the first set at 4-4, 15-30, Isner laced a sharp forehand down the line, deep into the deuce court pocket. Aware that he’d taken Tsitsipas off-balance, Isner raced forward and clipped a forehand volley crosscourt to earn the first and only break point of the set. Cashing it in, Isner served out the set at 15.
“It was a pretty weird match,” said Tsitsipas. “A lot of aces, short rallies. There was no play from the baseline at all. That was a bit annoying, because I was used to playing long rallies, you know, play the point, construct the point.”
While Tsitsipas wanted to construct, Isner had arrived to destruct. The American would throw down 22 aces, 54 winners and come to net 58 times (winning 46).
Fast-forward to 6-all in the second set. Isner, serving at 0-1, threw down a 126-M.P.H. serve that elicited a sky-high lob—which Isner then fired long. Two points later, Tsitsipas serving at 3-1, the man from Greece made a tragic error in shot selection. Attacking a short ball to his forehand, Tsitsipas opted to approach to Isner’s much stronger forehand. Isner’s pass kept the point alive, giving him the chance to shovel another forehand past Tsitsipas for a winner and get back on serve.
At 5-all, Isner reached set point. Down 5-6, Tsitsipas responded magnificently with a pair of service winners—122, 127 M.P.H.—to earn a set point of his own. Here, Isner’s improved volley technique surfaced. Reading a Tsitsipas backhand pass perfectly, Isner crunched a backhand volley winner. At 7-all, Isner feathered a forehand volley to earn his second set point. The next two points showed much about each man. Tsitsipas, down 7-8, approached boldly and punched a forehand volley behind winner. At 8-all, Tsitsipas smartly approached to Isner’s weaker backhand. But Isner came up with what was probably the biggest shot of the match, a line drive down-the-line backhand hit with enough pace to force a missed volley. At last holding a set point on his serve, Isner went to his pet—wide in the ad court. This one was 138 M.P.H. Goodnight, Irene.
All week, Tsitsipas had watched YouTube clips of another 19-year-old playing a round-of-16 match at Wimbledon. That match too had involved a man of Greek origins. It had come in 2001, when seven-time champion Pete Sampras had surrendered his crown to the teenaged Roger Federer.
As the elderly American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had once said to a young poet named Walt Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
Said Tsitsipas of his course in Federer Studies, “I wanted to play exactly like him and do the same results…He won that match, and it’s an inspiration. He was so young and he was just—he was coming out of nowhere, and then the whole world knew straightaway who Roger Federer is, what he can do on the court.”
But even Federer that day hadn’t been forced to rally from two sets to love down. Still, Tsitsipas fought off a break point at 3-4, 30-40 and a match point two games later, again hitting a sweet forehand volley behind Isner.
WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 7 at Wimbledon:
Naturally, another tiebreaker. Again, Tsitsipas earned the first mini-break, on the first point crushing a forehand crosscourt pass. But on the next point, in the middle of one of only two rallies in the entire match that exceeded ten shots, Tsitsipas on the 12th shot made a forehand-unforced error. Isner, his poise aided by an extensive off-court fitness regimen, maintained a death grip-like focus. Serving at 3-3, Tsitsipas rolled a topspin backhand long. That was all Isner needed to earn match points and wrap up the tiebreaker, 7-4.
This was one of those results where it was possible to feel happy for both players.
“It was a wonderful week,” said Tsitsipas.“I had goals in the beginning of the year to do fourth round of a Grand Slam. I actually believed it, but I never thought it’s gonna come that fast and that quick, and it just came with all the hard work I did this year…the vibes and the emotions and the conditions this year were just absolutely perfect, and despite the loss today, I can only take positives out of this Grand Slam, this very important Grand Slam that happens to be Wimbledon, one of my favorite Grand Slams. And I’m leaving from London with very nice memories.”
Tsitsipas’ joy even in defeat harkened back to the 2007 John Isner, the youthful contender who in the spring had left his own Athens—the University of Georgia—and by the end of summer established himself as a Top 100 player. But eleven years later, Isner was far from content to win a match or two at a major. There had been science fiction. There had been horror. Wednesday there would be a Western—a quarterfinal shootout versus another gunslinger, Milos Raonic.
This whole friggin’ sport—players, coaches, agents, officials, tournament directors, equipment reps, even writers—loves to talk about the process. But face it: as John Isner has proven so far at Wimbledon this year, nothing validates a process more accurately than a positive outcome.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.
WATCH: NOW AVAILABLE AT THE ITUNES STORE