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Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The hole Rafael Nadal created

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

LONDON -- When the draw for the 2012 US Open was released, the missing name of Rafael Nadal was expected to create a massive ripple effect of opportunity for the rest of the field. One of the big four was missing, and that meant at least one-quarter of the draw contained a soft underbelly who would emerge as a semifinalist.

In New York, the targeted weak link was the fourth seed, the always-underestimated David Ferrer. Fashionable picks were made. Big-serving John Isner was in that bracket. So was former No. 1 and two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt and the flamboyant, mercurial Richard Gasquet.

John Isner
John Isner is perfectly suited to thrive on grass, but so far he hasn't produced.
Ferrer responded, quieting the frenzy by holding steady and reaching the semifinals.

With Nadal knocked out by Steve Darcis here on Day 1 as a fifth seed, the ripple effect isn't as pronounced, but for Isner, and to a lesser extent the 2002 champion Hewitt, the stakes have been raised. The players in Nadal's quarter of the draw now must feel a new jolt of opportunity and pressure to get to the quarters. Isner may be the biggest beneficiary of Monday's upset.

Isner and Hewitt were both in Ferrer's draw in New York and now both are in the same here. A victorious Day 3 for both would set up a third-round matchup, a chance to take advantage of the hole created by Nadal's defeat. In New York, Isner in particular missed a huge opportunity. Hewitt met Ferrer in the third round and was beaten in four gritty sets, winning the second after losing the first in a tiebreaker before the punishing Ferrer finished him 6-0 in the fourth.

Had Nadal not lost to Darcis, Hewitt would have scored the biggest upset of the first day on the men's side. Stanislas Wawrinka had been having a career year -- he lost a five-set classic against Novak Djokovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open, beat Ferrer on the clay in Portugal and reached a clay final in Madrid, losing to Nadal -- but he went down in straights.

Hewitt will now take on the gangly, unpredictable German doubles specialist Dustin Brown, who is ranked 189th in singles. Brown, who is 6-foot-5, can be a dangerous shot-maker with a big serve but is not known for his consistency.

"I'll take it one match at a time," Hewitt said after beating Wawrinka. "The moment that you knock off a decent player, then you let your guard down, that's when you're going to go out of the tournament. I still have to stay composed, be confident. Still go out there and do the job."

The player whose stock rose the fastest with Nadal's loss, however, is unquestionably Isner. He will always be known as the player who won the longest match in Wimbledon history, the five-set epic against Nicholas Mahut, 70-68 in the fifth. At 6-9 with a massive serve and forehand, much of Isner's game is suited for grass.

A year ago at this time, Isner was ranked ninth in the world. He was a top-10 player who beat Roger Federer at Davis Cup on clay in Switzerland and Djokovic at Indian Wells last year. Isner seemed poised to be not just the best American player but an extremely dangerous player with massive weapons.

The reality has been a different story. He beat Nicolas Almagro in the final at Houston this year but is 15-14 on the year. Isner has never been as good as he was during the first half of 2012, and despite forever being associated with these grounds because of the Mahut match, he has never advanced past the second round.

Isner has not improved in the areas that grass demands (i.e., return of serve and movement). At his height, bending for low-dropping groundstrokes and volleys is imperative on grass, and both represent the biggest holes in his game.

The door was open last year, and the pressure, expectations and missed opportunity seemed to boil over at the US Open in the third round. Playing on hard courts in front of an American late-night crowd, Isner lost a bitter marathon five-set match to German Philipp Kohlschreiber that ended at nearly 2:30 a.m. That match was also noteworthy because the normally subdued Isner lost his cool as the match wore on, receiving a key code violation and losing focus in the pivotal fifth set. Since that loss, Isner lost his top-ranked American status to Sam Querrey and fell not only out of the top 10, but the top 20.

Thanks to Darcis, the door is open again at least for a quarterfinal chance at Federer without having to go through Nadal. The problem for one of them is that Hewitt and Isner must first not get tripped up themselves before having a go at each other. A window has opened for Isner to turn around what has been a disappointing year.