NEW YORK -- One is a diva for drama, and the other one of the most weirdly appealing characters in the game.
So you knew something unconventional was in the air when American John Isner and Frenchman Gael Monfils took the court late Thursday night. With Isner up two sets, the New York crowd inexplicably turned on its own. It was a bizarre scene, eerie actually, like one of those WWE matches, when everything is going according to plan (er, script) until one tag-team member suddenly gives his partner a boot to the groin and then pounds on him for about 20 unrelenting minutes for no apparent reason.
The fans began to cheer for Monfils, and it wasn't of the pity nature. If you weren't paying attention, you might have thought this was a Davis Cup tussle -- in Paris -- by the raucous noise from the crowd. Yes, the Americans were vociferously rooting for the bad guy.
Isner was noticeably affected. He dropped the third set without much fight and left the court, annoyed, sluggish and understandably confused. But when he returned, he pulled himself together, finally beating the Frenchman 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (4) to reach the third round of the US Open.
After Monfils dumped a forehand into the net on match point, Isner curled over, celebrated, almost defiantly, clenching his fists and furiously pumped his arms. He had showed that rogue crowd, the ones who had chosen tennis over nationalism. To their defense, though, they probably needed an excuse to unwind.
The night session had featured Caroline Wozniacki and Rafael Nadal, who dropped a combined six games in five sets. The fans were likely feeling flat from all the stodgy tennis over the past three or four hours.
"I noticed it," Isner said. "You know, [Monfils] is a fun-loving guy and an exciting guy to watch no matter where he is playing, but honestly it was a little bit surprising. I know the New York fans, they like to see long matches and fifth sets and whatnot, but it's not like there was no one cheering for me.
"I was a little bit disappointed in that, actually. Not going to sugarcoat it. It was certainly, if I was playing him in France, it certainly wouldn't be like that."
All this hoopla comes at a curious time. The U.S. men have been marred by disappointment for quite a while. This Open represents the 10-year anniversary since any American male (Andy Roddick) has won a Slam. And just three weeks ago, for the first time since computer rankings began in 1973, there was not one single American man in the top 20.
It didn't last long. Isner played some remarkable tennis leading up to the final major of the year, winning in Atlanta and finishing runner-up in Washington and Cincinnati. He entered the US Open ranked No. 17. In the opening round here, he took all that momentum and crushed Filippo Volandri 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 .
For the better part of two sets, Monfils played the kind of uninspired tennis that's kept him lingering in no-man's land for most of his career. He went through the motions, but his head seemed miles away. It looked as though this encounter was going to end with little buzz, if any.
But this is a guy who has a long history of histrionics. He has a beguiling game, one in which he can lethargically roam the court and then pull off stunning winners. He played well leading up to the US Open, winning 10 of his final 14 matches. He reached the Winston-Salem final just two days before this tournament began.
And with the crowd on his side, Monfils began to move with a little more zeal and made Isner work for every point.
"He enjoys atmospheres more than anyone else in the world," Isner said. "He wants to soak it up and play to the crowd more than anyone, really. That's just how he is.
"Like I said, he's a fun-loving guy and enjoys playing matches like that. For me, I didn't want to get involved in a little hit-and-giggle thing with him and try and get going back and forth, where I just wanted to stay focused."
In the end, it was Isner who played more aggressively than his opponent, swatting 60 winners and 23 aces in the match. He next plays Philipp Kohlschreiber, who, you guessed it, beat Isner right here in the same round one year ago.
"That match last year was very disappointing for me how it went about," Isner said. "I sort of lost it in the fifth set there, but he's extremely solid. He's been so solid for so long now."
Clearly, Isner is going to need a little something extra to get through that match. The crowd, perhaps?