Commentary

Oh, Nellie, here comes John Isner

Updated: March 18, 2012, 7:31 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- There is no reason to fully revisit the wobbly state of American men's tennis. Both in numbers and imagination, from the star power of the top players -- Andy Roddick's brief No.1 ranking notwithstanding -- belonging to other nations to the rebuilding of the youth programs, the game has been overshadowed by the Spanish and French, its individual stars by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Mardy Fish is the top American at No. 8. John Isner is second at 11, and then the mudslide begins. Andy Roddick is 31st, Donald Young 39th, James Blake 62nd, Ryan Harrison 72nd, Ryan Sweeting 80th and Sam Querrey 85th.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBefore shocking Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells, John Isner beat Roger Federer at Davis Cup earlier this year.

While time conspires against the 30-year-old Fish, who made his push too late to expect him either to remain in the top 10 or to climb past the Berdychs, Tsongas and Ferrers, the 22-year-old Young lacks the consistency and the weapons to be an every-tournament threat. Teenager Harrison & Co. are simply not ready to be counted upon. That leaves Isner as the one with the big game, the big weapons and now the big results who continues to give the American brand hope, most recently evidenced by Saturday's rousing 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) win over, yes, world no. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals here at Indian Wells.

For his efforts to reach his first Masters 1000 final, Isner will rematch Federer, who has only 18 Masters 1000 titles to go with 16 Grand Slam titles. In awful, wintery conditions -- sideways rain, 55-degree temperatures and heavy winds -- Federer harassed Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in the day's other semifinal. Nadal was clearly unnerved by the conditions, a demerit considering that Federer did not allow the weather or the several-hour delay to derail him. He adjusted, and Nadal did not. Nadal was distracted from the opening, trailing 3-0, waiting to notch his second forehand winner of the match after being down 5-2 in the second set -- most certainly a doomsday statistic for a forehand dominant player.

"It's not much of a surprise," Federer said of Isner. "He introduced himself to the world some time ago, and it is nice to see him string some matches together. He beat me in Davis Cup, and beat Novak, so he's the man to beat at the moment." Sunday's final will be the third time Federer and Isner have met on a hard court, with Federer having won both previous matchups in the third round of the 2007 U.S. Open and the second round in Shanghai in 2010.

Despite the Federer imprimatur, it would be easy to dismiss the 26-year-old Isner as simply a guy who for this one day in the desert was too good, as they say on the tennis courts. Djokovic was his usual indomitable self, scraping the lines from left to right, service line to baseline, frustrating Isner by returning missiles of serves that usually don't come back until Isner bludgeoned the best player in the world with consistent velocity that could not be overcome. Djokovic admitted that there isn't much to do with a guy with a 135 mph serve who drops 20 aces against zero -- yes, zero -- double faults and dropped in 74 percent of his first serves over three sets. Afterward, he referred to the entire experience of losing to a player after winning more total points "frustrating."

"Novak gets to a lot of balls. It seems like he's so flexible on the court. Every time I hit a shot that I thought was good for a winner, he was able to redirect it somehow," Isner said. "But I also knew I have the ability to frustrate my opponents no matter who I'm playing, so I knew that going into the match."

Isner is more than another big guy in the ever-growing world of tennis big guys and their predictable games -- big serve, big forehand, unreliable total game that gets dissected when the first serve inexorably goes wild. Isner this year defeated Roger Federer on clay, in Switzerland, in a Davis Cup match; took Rafael Nadal to five sets at the French Open last year; and has now beaten Djokovic, making him the first American to beat a world No. 1 since James Blake beat Federer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Should he beat either Federer or Rafael Nadal in Sunday's final, Isner will be the first American to win Indian Wells since Andre Agassi won the tournament back in the stone age of 2001.

Flirting in the atmosphere of the top three has made Isner think big. He said he believes he can win a Slam, even though the big boys plus talented, major-less cousin Andy Murray still dominate the game. His win will put him in the top 10 for the first time in his career and a win in the final would make him the highest-ranked American. He is reaching the point where he needs to be taken seriously for expanding his expectations.

"I knew going into this year that I had the tools and I had the game to be able to at least compete with these guys," Isner said. "I take the court no matter who I'm playing expecting to win and believing to win. There's really no reason to take the court if I believe otherwise. So, the win against Roger was very big for my confidence and obviously this one will be, too."

The contrast between Djokovic's tactics versus Isner and Federer's strategy for dealing with the game's physical giants was curious. Against the 6-foot-7-inch Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals and in his earlier match against the nearly as hulking Milos Raonic, Federer used much of the first set to find his range on their serves. He then watched their games crumble under the weight of having to defend an array of drop shots and slices, forcing the big guys to move in and out, challenging them laterally.

As he did in beating Nicolas Almagro earlier in the week, Djokovic chose to wait out Isner, to be consistent, to use his considerable defensive skills to parry Isner's massive serves. At one point, Djokovic, who is the best returner in the game, returned a 131 mph second serve back into play. Djokovic did not attempt to bury Isner with drop shots, and usually during the match when the two did find themselves at net, it was at Isner's provoking.

"It's frustrating when somebody serves over 70 percent of the first serves in with that accuracy and speed," he said. "I played him before and I knew I had to stay patient and wait for the chance. I had some chances, but I didn't take them."

Where Isner allowed American tennis fans to dream a little was in the toughness department, for what he did against Djokovic will serve him well in the upcoming tournaments and majors this year. After being broken in the third game of the first set, Djokovic was serving for the set at 5-4 when Isner broke back.

Looming over each point with Isner is that serve, which he pounded with more consistency as the match grew tighter. He could've folded after losing the second set 6-3 and scoring all of two points off of Djokovic's serve in the set. After all, he'd already acquitted himself well.

He could have tanked in the seventh game of the deciding third set tied at 3-all. But facing a breaking point, Isner responded with consecutive serves of 143 mph, and then a 139 mph serve that Djokovic batted into the net to take the game.

Even in the tiebreaker, after losing a 2-0 lead, Isner made the shot of the match. Djokovic served trailing 3-2 when Isner ran around his backhand on a Djokovic 87 mph second serve and blasted a forehand winner down the sideline. He finished in style, winning the match on match point No. 3, a 135 mph rocket wide into the deuce court.

At 26, John Isner is unquestionably America's best player. And now, his 2012 has begun with him in the conversation of not only being dangerous, but being one who can win against the game's best, if he can play at this high level day in, day out.

"It's the consistency," Isner said. "It's going deep into tournaments such as this. It's nice to win events and to win smaller events, but the ones that really matter are these Masters events. There's nine of them and the four Grand Slams.

"I feel like I know what it takes to do that, but at the same time it will be extremely tough if I'm going to crack the top five."