How John Isner let this one get away

It might have been a nightmare for John Isner, but for coast-to-coast headline writers who are often idle these days because of the state of American tennis, it was dream.

Isner lost to Mardy Fish in the final of the Atlanta Tennis Championships, a replay of their 2010 clash (won by Fish). Given the fast hard courts, the reliance of both finalists on the atomic serve and the reluctance of Isner to get involved in wars he can't win (meaning battles driven by a gale of forehands and backhands), we had a right to expect a fast, short, straightforward rip-fest.

In a way, that's the underappreciated beauty of hard-court tennis in what might be called the great American-Australian tradition. There's nothing wrong with epic clay-court matches played out under leaden skies with balls heavy as shot puts, the kind that produce 14 breaks in three sets. But I like the clean nature of what once was called the "big game" on fast courts. The game that's all about holding serve, and sets in which one or two breaks and a surprise here and there are all the narrative you have -- or want.

Neither Fish nor Isner can be mistaken for Pistol Pete Sampras (nor would want to be), who brought that game to fruition, but at times in their match, you could half-close your eyes and almost see Sampras slugging it out with Richard Krajicek or Goran Ivanisevic. It seemed like old times again.

Alas, there's a clay-courter living in Fish dying to get out. Regrettably, he gets out a little too often and leaves you wondering: Why doesn't he make the most out of a big serve and a great volley?

And Isner just isn't the athlete or grooved stroking-machine Sampras was. But he comes close to Sampras in a few ways. Give this 6-foot-9 former Georgia Bulldog a service break on a fast court and he goes into sleep mode, knowing that, with that flamethrower of a serve, all he has to do is hold between one and three times and win the set.

Sampras was a master of that approach. Also like Sampras, Isner has a penchant for just rolling along, serving and holding, minding his own business, until that critical moment when an opponent shows a trace of weakness or fear. That's the cue to strike, and it doesn't much matter whether the break comes by virtue of a sizzling placement or an ugly off-the-frame winner. It gets the job done when you have the serve to make it stick.

Isner played that game to a T -- and to a point -- on Sunday. He capitalized on an early break and won the first set. He broke Fish right off the bat in the next set. It seemed pretty clear that Isner was just going to tread water instead of trying to break serve, trusting that big serve to get him through the set with three holds. Came the surprise: Fish broke Isner right back.

OK, so Isner fell back on his default position, playing to get into the tiebreaker. But when he did, things got even more interesting. Isner blew a 5-1 lead and two match points in the 'breaker, and Fish roared back to win it, 8-6. When he broke a dispirited Isner in the first game of the last set, the end was in sight. Isner was simply too tired after a long, hot week in Atlanta to mount much resistance.

It was familiar script, with a premium on execution (everyone, including Fish, knew what Isner was going to do -- and not do). Mix them together and you have a good old-fashioned hard-court tennis match. The kind of match I often miss these days.