By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
FRIBOURG, Switzerland – It started as a tough assignment for the U.S. Davis Cup Team in facing the Swiss team, with 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in Switzerland on clay for the opening round of the 2012 Davis Cup campaign.
But on Day 1 of the tie in Fribourg, it turned into one of the best days in U.S. Davis Cup history.
John Isner played an aggressive match to secure his best career win, as he upset hometown hero Federer, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2, to earn his first Davis Cup win in a live rubber and give the U.S. a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five tie. Earlier, Mardy Fish secured the first point with a come-from-behind win over Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 9-7, in nearly four-and-a-half hours, the third longest match in U.S. Davis Cup team history since the tiebreak was introduced in 1989.
Isner hit three consecutive return winners while leading 5-2 to earn the break, the final one a backhand, on his first match-point chance for his first career victory over Federer in three meetings. With the win, he became the first American to defeat Federer on clay since Vince Spadea back in 1999 in the first round at Monte Carlo.
"It is the biggest win of my career thus far, so I am very proud of it," Isner said. "That being said, we are up 2-0, which is a great start. That was our goal coming into today, and we accomplished it. Mardy put forth a great effort in the first match that was so gutsy, and what it did, it took a lot of pressure off of me, I felt like."
After dropping the opening set, Isner, the world No. 17, responded with a break in the second to go up 4-2, when Federer hit a forehand into the net, and closed out the set a few games later with one of his 14 aces.
The third set progressed on serve, but Isner found himself in trouble serving at 3-2, as he went down 15-40. But the American did not panic and stuck to his game plan that he had talked about with U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier. He was going to swing away, especially on a clay surface with a lot of bounce, and continue to play aggressive with his shots, no matter who was winning.
And it worked, as Isner fought off four break points in that game, gaining the advantage with an ace and closing it out when Federer hit a backhand return into the net for 3-all. He also fought off a break point in his next service game for 4-all, as Federer cruised through most of his service games the rest of the way as the set moved to the tiebreak, which Isner never trailed.
"I just went out and went for my shots, and they found the court. That is really the blueprint for how I need to play and how I need to return for all of my matches, no matter who I am playing," Isner said. "No matter what the score was, I just tried out there today to not let the score dictate how I play. So when I was in a hole, just keep going for my shots, and if I miss it, so be it. Be within reason with them, but still go for them, and I was going to try to, especially on my service games, finish the point. If the serve got back, finish it in the next two shots."
Federer seemed to be on his way to a lead in the fourth set, as he was up 0-40 at 2-all. But Isner did what he does best in his game – serve big – to bring him out of trouble, including hitting two aces and one returnable serve off Federer’s racquet to bring the game to deuce. A forehand winner gave him the advantage and then a winner down the line gave him the hold.
For the match, Federer was just one of 12 in break-point opportunities and knew those chances were the difference in the match.
"I thought he did well, I thought we both did well under a lot of the pressure moments. I just missed a couple opportunities, more than he did, and that is what cost me the match," he said. "Overall, I thought he played really well when he had to. Obviously, the serve is not an unknown. We know that is always pretty good, and he did that exceptional again today. He returned well, and he also played tough and served great when he had to, and that put him over the finish line today."
The finish line came when a break in the next game put Isner up 4-2 after Federer hit a forehand wide, and two games later, he had his first win over the great Swiss with his three return winners.
"I played those break points down very well, and that sort of turned the match a little for me," Isner said.
Courier was extremely proud of how Isner really stuck to his game plan against Federer.
"John played exactly the kind of match we needed him to play. He needs to play this way every day the rest of his career, and he does that, he is going to be a real force to be reckoned with," he said. "I don’t know if I've ever seen anyone finish a match against Roger Federer the way he did today. That was pretty amazing."
In the opening match, Fish earned the victory on his third match-point chance as he served for the match for the second time after earning a break to go up 8-7 in the fifth. He fought off two break points from Wawrinka, but unlike when he served for the match at 5-4 earlier in the set, this time he did not let it get away.
Fish smacked his 15th ace for his second advantage of the game, and on the next point, Wawrinka hit a short return just over the net that the American raced to before hitting a soft forehand volley winner for his 10th career Davis Cup win. He was pleased he was able to finish off this five-set marathon, after dropping two close matches, to Feliciano Lopez in five sets and to David Ferrer in four sets, in the U.S. team’s quarterfinal loss to Spain last July.
"When I lost serve to go 5-all (in the fifth), certainly was trying to not think about what happened last year in Austin," Fish said of his losses to Lopez and Ferrer. "I played two heartbreaking matches there that took me awhile to get over, and that would have been really brutal to lose, as well."
It seemed unlikely the match was going the distance early, as Fish cruised to an easy first-set win, missing a bunch of first serves but effectively putting good spin on his second. However, Wawrinka immediately responded to open the second set with his first break of Fish at love for the early lead. Fish battled to break back for 3-all but was unable to hold the lead, as Wawrinka immediately broke back for 4-3.
The third started exactly the same, as Wawrinka broke Fish to open the set, as a big difference in the second and third sets was Wawrinka’s ability to capitalize on big points to earn breaks and his ability to fend off Fish, who did not have one break-point chance on the Swiss’ serve in the third.
But Fish battled back, saving two break points early in the third game of the fourth set with help from a few Wawrinka errors, and played a great return game on Wawrinka’s serve. Fish earned the break and a 3-1 lead when he smoked one of his 93 winners in the match on a backhand cross-court, first-serve return.
From there he stayed in control of the fourth, playing steady, and sent the match to the fifth with a forehand-volley winner to close out the set, 6-1.
The battle then began for the fifth, as Fish had two chances to break for an early lead, earning his first with one of his many great drop shots in the match, but Wawrinka used a solid serve, including two aces, to help keep the set on serve.
But it did not last long, as two games later, Fish gained a break point with an advantage on an overhead winner after catching up with a Wawrinka lob. On the next point, he closed out the break when Wawrinka hit a shot past the baseline for the 3-2 lead.
Fish worked hard to keep his lead three games later after falling behind 0-40 on three consecutive errors. He saved one with a lob, after Wawrinka caught up to one of his drop shots, and then Wawrinka hit a ball long and wide to bring the game to deuce. On Wawrinka’s second advantage and fourth break-point chance, Fish turned to his big serve to get him out of trouble, smacking one off Wawrinka’s racquet, and saved the fifth when the Swiss netted a backhand. After another great serve for the advantage, he secured a 5-3 advantage on a long return from Wawrinka.
Fish then served for the match two games later and, after 30-all, fell to 30-40 when he lobbed a forehand into the net, but a few points later had his first match-point opportunity, although was unable to close it out. He was a little conservative with his shot-making, and the game went to deuce on a cross-court winner from Wawrinka, who then earned a break-point chance when Fish hit a forehand into the net. A forehand long from the American put the set back on serve.
They played on, and it was Fish who struck first, breaking to go up 8-7 after a rally ended with a Wawrinka backhand past the baseline. And as he took the ball to serve for the match a second time, he bent slightly but did not break; securing the lead for the U.S. and one of the biggest wins of his career.
"It is certainly up there, there is no doubt about it," he said of this match ranking amongst his biggest wins.
"It is a three-out-of-five-set, clay-court match, you are going to make errors, and you are going to play well, and during four and a half hours, at times you are not going to play well. Hopefully you can be the guy that has won in the end, and that is all that matters," he added.
The U.S. now needs just one more point in the tie to secure the first-round victory, with the doubles rubber scheduled for Saturday between co-world No. 1 Mike Bryan and Ryan Harrison against Federer and Wawrinka. Captains, however, can change the lineups up to an hour before the start of play. However, the team knows not to take anything for granted despite being up 2-0.
"Mardy has lost a few tight matches like that, and he stepped up today and won a tight match. That is huge for him, and it is huge for us as a team," Courier said of Fish’s win.
"I am very happy with 2-0; obviously, our team is very happy with that," he added. "There is a lot of work to be done because it is real. We have a long way home to win that third match out of five, so we have to stay focused. I am proud of the guys for the effort (today)."