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Monday, April 9, 2012
Isner, Serena give U.S. plenty of hope


U.S. tennis fans haven't had all that much to crow about recently, so from a narrow, chauvinistic point of view, you have to count this weekend a huge success. John Isner and Serena Williams acquitted themselves with great panache, and for a moment we can entertain the illusion that we're back in the era of John McEnroe and Christine Marie Evert.

McEnroe, because he was a heroic Davis Cup performer -- just as Isner has become on the wings of three huge wins in away ties on European red clay. And Evert, because she once ruled the rare green-clay tournament that has stubbornly kept its place on the spring calendar as the Family Circle Cup, going all the way back to the days when the tournament (now in Charleston) was held in that other South Carolina outpost, Hilton Head Island.

Isner's cool, explosive, four-set triumph over ATP No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France clinched the quarterfinal World Group Davis Cup tie for the U.S. on the customarily unfriendly red clay of Monte Carlo. Isner produced a terrific display of aggressive, positive tennis -- and a particularly striking one because of Tsonga's game.

This past Friday, in the second match (or "rubber," in Davis Cup patois) of the tie, Isner pulled the U.S. even with France at 1-1 by virtue of a tight and bright smothering of the counterpunching clay-bred ATP No. 13, Gilles Simon. It was a classic battle of offensive firepower (Isner's) versus the deft talent (Simon's), with the weight of the red clay tilting the playing field toward the latter. But Isner prevailed in a monochromatic battle.

In Tsonga, Isner was up against a like-minded ball-puncher -- one made more dangerous by his signature Gallic dose of creativity. Tsonga's offensive skills have vaulted him to No. 6 in the world, right behind the big four, while No. 11 Isner is only now knocking on the door of the top 10.

But Isner's less-nuanced but more straightforward attacking mindset proved superior. He blasted 56 winners compared to Tsonga's 43 and fired 16 aces; Isner also won a superb 64 percent of his second-serve points.

Through the years, American players generally have lived and died by offense, which helps explain why U.S. players are so beleaguered today. But it seems that Davis Cup brings out the best in the lanky, elastic 6-foot-9 Isner.

In the first round of World Group play, he spearheaded the U.S.'s victory at Switzerland with a huge win over Roger Federer. On Sunday, it was Tsonga. Tomorrow (figuratively speaking), the assignment will be Rafael Nadal, as the U.S. will travel to Spain for the semifinal round, the week after the U.S. Open.

Meanwhile, on a different shade of clay, Serena Williams was as overpowering as Evert once was on the green, green clay of home -- insofar as Carolina can be considered part of the home territory for both Floridian tennis icons. Sloughing off growing skepticism about her future, based on a not unreasonable combination of her rich history of injury and age (30), Williams ran roughshod over the competition in Charleston in a way not seen since the heydays of Evert and Steffi Graf.

Let's skip the prelims: In the semis, Serena swamped the woman who took her measure in the last U.S. Open final. Slammin' Sammy Stosur might have been better off matching drives and putts with the golfers a few miles down the road this weekend at Augusta National than challenging Serena's backhand. She left the semis a battered loser, 6-1. 6-1.

In the final, surprise guest Lucie Safarova -- a lefty -- made even less of an impression on Serena. The greatest player of this generation humiliated Safarova, love and one. Ouch!

A week ago, following Serena's sobering loss to Caroline Wozniacki in Miami, her prospects for the coming clay-court season seemed bleak indeed. Now you have to wonder whether this command performance on clay isn't a harbinger as the tours make their way toward the next Grand Slam, the French Open. Let's not push our luck. For now, the performances by Isner and Williams ought to be more than enough to keep us happy in the coming days.