John Isner pulled out arguably the best performance of his career to post a first-ever win against Rafael Nadal to take the Laver Cup to a live 12th rubber.
Six times Isner had played Nadal, six times Nadal had won, but the four sets the American had claimed gave him confidence that if he could get all his spark plugs firing, he could compete with the world No 1. The giant American was simply inspired, beating Nadal 7-5 7-6(1) to make the overall score 12-9 to Europe with just one rubber (Roger Federer v Nick Kyrgios) to play.
Isner had earlier played doubles, partnering Jack Sock to victory over Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych. That seemed to help him in this match. “I once played someone who actually chose to play doubles during the day and then play singles against me at night.
It was Teimuraz Gabashvili, and he won the doubles against the Bryans, and then he beat me in singles. He was seeing the ball so big, and the exact same thing happened out there today for me. You have a win like that in doubles, you’re then riding high on confidence, and I had nothing to lose. It was a perfect little recipe for me.”
When he looks back on recordings of this match – as he probably will for the next 50 or so years – what should impress Isner is the way he found his best form when he needed it most. He didn’t play his best tennis throughout, but tennis is not decided by the total number of points won but by who wins the most important points. And in that, Isner was exemplary.
The really crucial stage of the match was the last three games of the first set. Isner had caught Nadal cold by breaking in the opening game, and he held that advantage until 5-4. But a combination of Isner becoming a little tentative and Nadal upping his intensity allowed the Spaniard to break back for 5-5. When Nadal struck the crosscourt backhand that broke the Isner serve, he waved his arms to whip up the crowd. Normal service resumed.
Only it wasn’t. In the next game Nadal hit two horrendous forehands, dropped serve, and Isner played a superb game, storming forward to make himself as big as possible, and held serve for a 7-5 first set.
Nadal was still in pole position for the second set, especially by serving first and serving really well for his first three games. But at 4-4 Isner had a break point – effectively a match point – which Nadal had to save with a good serve out wide. That could have been the turning point back towards Nadal, but Isner hung in with two comfortable service holds, and then played a superb tiebreak. Continuing to storm forward, challenging Nadal to pass him, he tamed the raging bull to take the tiebreak 7-1.
For those not in Prague or not watching on TV, the result may seem scarcely credible, but make no mistake: Isner deservedly won this. Not only will he watch recordings of this for the rest of his life, but he’ll want to bottle this energy and bring it to every match he plays. In this form, he was more than a big server – he was irresistible.
Isner said the victory was among his best ever, certainly rivalling his four-sets win over Roger Federer on Swiss clay in the Davis Cup five years ago. “I went onto court feeling pretty good, and my arm was feeling loose, so I just went out there and swung away. But that’s what you have to do against a guy like him. It makes the game plan pretty easy.”