by Kevin Craig
John Isner fought off a valiant effort from fellow American Frances Tiafoe, an 18-year old, to come back from two sets to love down, winning 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2, 7-6(2) in the first men’s match played on the new Grandstand Court at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
The No. 1 American got off to a more than lackluster start, getting broken at love by the No. 125 player in the world in his opening service game of the match. Even though Isner was able to get a break back later in the set, that first game set the tone for the first two sets as Tiafoe was clearly the better player and Isner had no answer for the young American, who was able to grab another break late in the first set to take a big step towards his first win at a major.
Tiafoe was able to breeze through the second set as he once again broke in Isner’s opening service game before saving the only break point he faced in the set a few games later. The 18-year old playing in just third match at a major was just one set away from earning what would be by far the biggest win of his career and he had the complete support of the crowd behind him.
“Just gotta stay with it…try to keep the match competitive,” said Isner of his strategy heading into a do or die third set.
Tiafoe was able to carry that momentum from the first two sets into the third, earning a break point in Isner’s opening service game again, but was unable to convert as Isner did exactly what he wanted to, keep the match competitive. Later at 2-2, Tiafoe had a look at two more break points, but again the veteran Isner was able to fend those off, and it looked like he had received his much needed wake-up call. From there, Isner was able to get his first real foothold in the match and force a tiebreak where he had to fight back from a 3-1 deficit to steal the third set and extend the match.
In the fourth set, Isner began to really assert himself on the court and was able to play his “big-man” style of tennis for the first time in the match. Dominating on serve, Isner began to apply more pressure on the Tiafoe serve, earning him two breaks and a comfortable 6-2 fourth set win.
It was clear from the first point of the fifth set that it would be up for grabs as both players looked to be at their peak levels of performance. Tiafoe regained his form from the first two sets while Isner was still riding the wave of momentum that had gotten him back even in the match. A few easy holds each way began the set before Tiafoe earned the first real opportunity to close out the match. With Isner serving at 3-4, Tiafoe was able to break and had the match on his racquet, serving at 5-3. Isner was up to the task, however, and quickly raced out to a 0-40 lead before breaking at 30-40 to get the set back on serve before eventually forcing a deciding set tiebreak.
“Just trying to play solid, try to play the right way. I think I played a pretty good game. I think I made every single return. From that point on…it gave me a lot of energy moving forward,” said Isner of his play to break Tiafoe when he served for the match.
Final set tiebreaks had not been Isner’s specialty in 2016 as he had lost six matches in these scenarios, but he was able to put that to the wayside and looked very comfortable. A mini-break in the first point of the tiebreak for Isner, combined with a few Tiafoe errors, including a double fault, allowed the 6’10” American to cruise to a 7-2 tiebreak win and close out the comeback.
Both Isner and Tiafoe were appreciative of the atmosphere that helped make the match as intense as it was.
“It was an absolute pleasure to play out here in front of you fans and an absolute pleasure to play against Frances. He’s a hell of a player and a class act,” said Isner.
“It was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played on in my life…it’s an unbelievable time I had playing tennis today…you guys made this match unbelievably fun for me,” added Tiafoe, who listened to chants of his name ring out throughout the course of the match.
“It hurts. It hurts a lot…but I can’t wait to come back next year and hopefully do damage,” continued a disappointed but hopeful Tiafoe.
Isner will take on Steve Darcis in the second round at the US Open in a section of the draw that completely opened up when Richard Gasquet was upset by Kyle Edmund in straight sets. A potential fourth round match with Novak Djokovic awaits the No. 1 ranked American.