John Isner is to duel with Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of Indian Wells. It will be the second time the two have met at that stage of the ATP1000 event in the Californian desert. The last time was in 2012 when Isner put a dent in the then world number one’s dominance to make the final. That semi-final went all the way down to a final set tiebreak, and fans will be in for a treat if this match is anywhere near as full of drama, tension and contrasts.
Isner got to the last four of Indian Wells by beating Latvian Ernests Gulbis 7-6(4), 7-6(3). Isner’s serve served him well as he faced a break point at 30-40, 5-6 in the first set. Not only was it a break point, however, it was a set point for Gulbis, too. Isner saved it with a second serve winner, his principal weapon once again holding up in combat, under pressure. In the tiebreak, the American, who has a career 207-114 record in tie-breakers, earned an early mini-break for a 5-3 lead and then fired down two bullets to take the first set 7-6.
Isner’s prospective duel with Djokovic in the Indian Wells semi-finals looked to be in doubt as Gulbis, the recent Marseilles winner, broke to lead 1-0. The Latvian has quite the serve of his own, and served for the set at 5-4. But the Latvian made four errors in five points to hand Isner back the break. Both men then held all the way to another tie-breaker where Isner’s main weapon again came into its own. The American ran away with the breaker 7-3 and made his second Indian Wells semi-final.
A last four appearance in Indian Wells will be a highlight for Isner in what has been an up and down career. The start of this season was a microcosm of the peaks and troughs Isner has gone through- a tournament victory in Auckland followed by a retirement in the first round of the Australian Open. Injuries have plagued the 6ft9″ Isner, but he is currently going through one of his healthy periods, making the semis of Delray Beach last month where only an in-form Cilic was able to stop him.
Isner’s last duel with Djokovic in Indian Wells, his 2012 victory, was certainly a highlight in his career. And a highlight for fans, too. The Serbian was in much better shape mentally when they last met, fresh off a victory at the Australian Open,and so Isner’s victory was a shock, and a thrilling one, too, ending in a breaker. This time, Djokovic is in shakier form. The fall from the top of the world rankings, the epic loss to Wawrinka, in Melbourne, the Federer defeat in Dubai and the sets dropped to Gonzalez and Cilic this week are a far cry from what fans saw from Dkokovic in his peak 2011-2012 period. This is a time of transition though for the Serbian, adapting to both his new coach and a change in the attitudes of the players below the “big four”, opponents who now believe they can win.
Isner is one of them. Isner, who said in his post Gulbis victory presser that he feels as confident now as he did back in ’12, will draw on that belief and experience when he lines up for battle with the world number 2. His service will certainly help him. In his victory over Gulbis, Isner got 73 percent of his first services in, and won 80 percent of points on that shot. He also fired down 13 aces. That seve, Isner said, is one he knows he can always pull out when matters get tight. Isner also has the knowledge that if things go to a tiebreak then his 8-5 year to date win-loss record should give him confidence. And not only does he have self-belief, he has the home crowd advantage, too, a factor he says he enjoys. The crowd will, without doubt, help his cause, jumping on, along with Isner, any vulnerability displayed by Djokovic. They will also, if any of Isner’s weapons-his serve and forehand-fail him, back him up for reinforcement. And the majority of the possible 16,100 fans who can fill up Stadium 1 will be quite the back-up.
Isner’s duel with Djokovic in the semi-finals of Indian Wells is going to be one to heat up the Stadium 1 court of the “fifth Major”, and if it is anything like their 2012 enocunter, it could get bloody. The winner will face the victor of the Federer-Dolgopolov clash. It is fine selection of battles in what has been a tournament to remember so far. Isner and Djokovic may make it even more so in their semi-final duel later today.
Commentary by Christian Deverille