Patrick McEnroe once talked about Pete Sampras’s serve as being a heavy ball with what he liked to call “late movement. It had weight to it.” He was trying to describe the feeling of being on the receiving end of one of the most devastating serves of the 90’s and arguably of all time. Sampras and his serve, have long exited the tour, but they have inspired a lineage of Americans with big serves.
Isner is the latest heir and as Federer found out last night, when he is on with that serve, there is very little you can do. Yesterday I predicted a Federer win. I was wrong. A title, in Basel, a confident start to Paris Bercy and a favorable H2H against John, did nothing to stop the latter from felling the former. However, I also predicted at least one tie break set. We got two. In their past encounters, Federer has always found a way to take care of his serve, even if he couldn’t break the Isner serve, and then step it up in the breaker and thus break Isner’s spirit. As gigantic, as Isner and his game are, Federer had a knack for making him look… little. Today Little John stepped up big time.
However, anyone who says Isner is all serve, would be mistaken. It is just common knowledge that Isner’s game is heavily dependent on that weapon working exceedingly well. It sets up the rest of his game when that delivery is pelted accurately into the opposite box. Funny enough, Federer’s game is also built around his serve. It’s just that his serve is not big enough as to overshadow the rest of what he does. He obviously can hit shots better than Isner can, cleaner even. But Isner can hit shots too and he can hit them well… well enough. He certainly can hit them big enough.
This match underscored the lethal nature of a potent delivery. It puts pressure on the other player. Every forehand, backhand, volley, smash, slice or drop shot counts just a bit more. Every delivery feels more significant. And it is. Because the opposing player knows that one slip up might be all it takes. One break of serve in each set and the match is done. Ironically, Isner didn’t break Federer today. He was up to the mental challenge, until it got to the tiebreaks.
Agassi used to say Sampras didn’t always need to elevate his game over his opponent’s. He brought their games down. He did it by taking away their rhythm with his serving. And then he’d pounce. He’d break you and it was over. Little John wasn’t good enough to break today. He was good enough to mini-break. And sometimes, that can be just as effective.