Sunday, March 18, 2012

INDIAN WELLS '12: Improbable Federer-Isner Final!

In a day of shocking upsets, John Isner won the biggest match of his life to become the first American male player in four years to defeat a  reigning #1 player in the world (Novak Djokovic) in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells 7-6(7) 3-6 7-6(5). With his win, Isner cemented his entry into the ATP Tour Top 10 for the first time, and also secured that he will receive the biggest paycheck of his tennis career on Sunday, where the finalist receives $500,000 and the Champion gets a cool $1 million.

Isner now has a win over World #1 Djokovic and World #3 Roger Federer (on clay in Switzerland in Davis Cup) for 2012 and will be playing in his very first ATP Masters Series final. Last year, Djokovic did not lose a second match until August 21 when he retired with a shoulder injury against Andy Murray in the Cincinnati Masters Final.

Semifinals Review
Djokovic did not play badly on Saturday but was clearly not at his best; his groundstrokes did not have the usual penetrating  pop (or accuracy) and he became uncharacteristically tentative at crucial moments in the match. After breaking Isner in the very first game, Djokovic served for the first set at 5-4 and opened the game with a momentum-sapping double fault which eventually resulted in dropping his serve and evening the opening set at 5-all. This gave Isner confidence and he was able to get to the tie-break where he served a string of 140-plus mph serves, including an ace on set point at 8-7 in the tiebreak. Djokovic, on the other hand, repeatedly refused to be aggressive from the ground late in the tension-filled tiebreak and paid the ultimate price. Djokovic was able to win the 2nd set when he broke Isner late in the set but he never looked completely comfortable and Isner was able to basically hold his own from the ground, even when he was not serving bombs (although the American did end with 21 aces on the day). So, it was not that big of a surprise when Isner finished his biggest win of his career to date with another ace in another tiebreak on his very first match point.

And that was just the warm-up match for Federer-Nadal XXVIII! Since Nadal owns an 18-9 advantage over Federer and a 5-1 in outdoor hard courts, not very many people expected this match to be competitive, predicting an easy win for the higher ranked player. The match ended up being postponed for 3 hours due to rain and when it started the wind was incredible, with gusts up to 25 mph. One would have thought the conditions would have made it even tougher for the play with the one-handed backhand, but for some reason Federer came out firing and quickly raced out to a 3-0 lead. Nadal fought back and evened up things at 3-all, but then Federer held serve and broke the Spaniard and served out the first set 6-3. In the second set, Federer broke early and nursed his serve to scores of 3-1 and 4-2 and then broke Nadal to go up 5-2 and serve for the match. Nadal promptly broke back and drizzle started to fall. However, Nadal was able to hold and so Federer served for the match for a second time at 5-4, rushing to finish the match before the deluge came. However, at 30-all, a long point ensued which was won by Federer to set up a match point when the skies opened up and play was stopped on match point for Federer (6-3, 5-4, 40-30). After 4 minutes the players resumed play and Federer served a 120-plus mph ace out wide to seal his first outdoor hard-court victory since the very first time he played Nadal in 2005. Federer improved to 10 wins out of 28 matches played, and nosed ahead in their hard-court head-to-head, getting a modicum of revenge for his 2012 Australian Open semifinal loss to his arch-nemesis.

Final Preview
Federer and Isner are two very improbable finalists at the 2012 BNP Paribas Masters at Indian Wells, since last year World #1 and World #2 played in the final and most people expected that would happen again, especially the organizers. I'm sure they are not disappointed the soon-to-be top ranked American is playing in his first Masters Series final at their tournament but again, probably very few people give him a chance to win.

Head-to-head, Federer and Isner have only played 3 times (2007, 2010 and 2012) in their career with the 30-year-old Swiss leading his 26-year-old American opponent 2-1, having won both the hard-court matches and inexplicably lost their indoor clay court match. Federer has been playing excellent tennis for quite awhile, and has won 5 of the last 7 tournaments he has played in. Federer has also shown that he is able to dismantle the game of hard-serving Americans before (*cough*Andy Roddick *cough*) but Isner is probably a smarter and more effective server now than Roddick was at his peak but he is a MUCH less agile mover, both characteristics attributable to his 6'9", 245-pound frame. If Isner has an incredible serving day, he could totally take the winning decision completely out of Federer's hands (similar to Federer's shocking loss at Wimbledon last year to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga). It definitely helps Isner that he knows he CAN beat Federer, since he did it a little less than a month ago.

As a 16-time major champion Federer is playing for history (as usual); if he wins this match he will win his 4th Indian Wells Masters title, and tie Nadal at the top of the record books with 19 ATP Masters shields apiece. Federer has a very good record of 72 wins and 30 losses in ATP Tour finals compared to Isner's 3 wins and 5 losses. I just doubt whether Isner has the instinct to really dig deep and do what he needs to do to beat Federer in the biggest match of his life, one day after he just played and won the biggest match of his life, where regardless of what happens he will earn more money in one day (he is also playing in the doubles final!) then he won all year in several of his years on tour.

MadProfessah's Prediction: Federer.

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