By Ron Cioffi/BB&T Atlanta Open
John Isner powered his way into his fourth straight BB&T Atlanta Open semifinal, using his favorite method: winning tiebreaks.
With a 23-6 tiebreak record this year, the crowd favorite waited for the thirteenth game of each set to eliminate James Blake 7-6(1), 7-6(5). With 21 aces and a 61 first-serve percentage, the 6’9" Isner looked to his serve to ensure that he would come out on top. Pun intended. He dominated the first set tiebreak and served it out with an ace.
Former Georgia Bulldog Isner seemed content to keep holding his serve in the first. But that strategy went south in the second set when he couldn’t dig himself out of a 0-40 hole in the second game. With a 3-0 lead, Blake looked to be gaining his range. But, in the pivotal seventh game, he threw in a double on break point, allowing Isner back into the set.
When asked about his strategy in tiebreaks, Isner responded, "It favors me because I can finish points quickly. If my opponent slips up on one (service) point, then the advantage goes to me and the tiebreak could be over."
"I was a little soft at the beginning of the second set. James got on top of me. I played one or two loose points and the next thing you know I’m facing three break points," he admitted.
When the second set ended up knotted at 6-6, Isner was in the cat bird seat. Knowing that he could serve his way out of most tiebreaks, he delivered with three aces in the tiebreak, one more than Blake. "I was able to get going in the second set and regroup."
Isner said he wasn’t bothered by playing a long three-setter over upstart Christian Harrison. "I don’t think it hindered me." Because he has short points and Blake plays quickly, the quarterfinal match was relatively quick.
Blake said, "I never got the opportunities. I was never ahead. I felt like I didn’t take enough chances when I had second serves. A match with John Isner comes down to one or two points. You make it or you don’t."
Georgia holds a special significance for Isner, even though he was born and raised in Greensboro, N.C.
"I feel like this is one of my homes," said Isner about Atlanta. His ties run back to his four-year run at the University of Georgia where he was a three-time All-American. When in Atlanta, he usually takes a day off and returns to the Athens campus to visit with Coach Manny Diaz and participate in a clinic.
Next up for Isner is Lleyton Hewitt, who knocked him out of Newport in the semifinals just two weeks ago. Isner noted that his record is a measly one win out of five matches.
Going against conventional wisdom, Isner talked about the similarity of different surfaces. "I lost to Lleyton on grass at Newport," he said. "I don’t think the surface matters, really. I’m fine playing on any surface. I’ve won on a tournament on every surface."