John Isner bangs a big ace to take the first point of the fourth set and scarcely a minute later he holds at love and the race is on.
And a race it will be. Michael Mmoh replies with a couple shrewd winners and holds in turn, then comes back from 0-30 on Isner’s next service game, ties it when Isner nets a backhand volley and gets ahead with a free one as Isner makes one of his rare double faults. Isner saves the break point but gives Mmoh another one with a netted forehand from the baseline, then nets a backhand while going for another serve and volley. Break, Mmoh on serve at 2-1.
The feeling spreads in the bleachers, John’s tiring. He is making mistakes and if he lets Michael take charge he will be in trouble.
John Isner took a two set lead in the second round match, which he is playing against Michael Mmoh at the Grandstand, the medium stadium that seats about eight thousand fans. He has been the top American player, most years, since Andy Roddick — who as it happens is the last man to have won a Slam (formally a major), right here at the U.S. Open 20 years ago.
Michael Mmoh is a rising player nearly fifteen years his junior, whose career had a slow start due to injuries. He looks strong and fit now, powerful shoulders and a powerful forehand and excellent serve. Mmoh has been having a fine season but for two sets it looked as if Isner would cruise into the third round. Mmoh could not answer his booming aces and was unsettled in his shot making, could not get into the time-honored way of fighting back against a big server, which is to find a way to get a few back and then get into extended rallies, move him around and wear him down, while holding your own serve. (RELATED: Public Servants Should Emulate Men in Doubles)
That started happening in the third set; Mmoh hung in for 6-6 and then took the tiebreak on Isner errors. And now, if he could repeat in the fourth set, they would go to a deciding fifth and, maybe, the younger man would have more left in the tank, plus the momentum.
Good plan; Isner played his game but Mmoh’s game got steadier, he hit clean hard shots and held to his lead, moving his opponent to make him hit awkwardly or late, send his shots into the net or over the line. At 5-4 he quickly got to 40-0 and smacked an ace up the middle. Four-four.
Where the plan deviated was that Isner found something deep inside him to make the fifth set not the rout of an exhausted old pro, but a nail-biter to the very last point. Fifth sets are almost one or the other, rather than the probably-him-but-could-go-either-way toss ups of high-level matches, where the momentum can turn against the one who seemed in better form. In fifth sets, which are only played in majors and Davis Cup competition, you have either given your all and you and your opponent know it, or you can put on the court what Rudyard Kipling said you must, “... force your heart and nerve and sinew/ To serve your turn long after they are gone…”
Tall, strong — slim for his six-ten height … Isner is not a self-absorbed obsessive maniac.
They both did both. No breaks. No shouting. Scarcely any fist pumping. Nods to salute each other’s great shots. The only thing missing here were the white outfits of yore, and — perhaps, but this is New York — a crowd that might have kept its partisanship under control.
Not that it mattered. It may have lifted John Isner a bit to hear the yells of encouragement. He knew they wanted him, nothing against Mmoh but Isner is the homeboy, in a way, well known to the fans who have been coming to the U.S. Open, and they want him to win one more as much as he does. He has said this is his farewell to professional tennis. He has never won a major, and if no one seriously expected he would win this one, a deep run would be a treat, or even just one more round, one more round John, one more round John, we love ye so!
Leader of American Men’s Tennis
Because John Isner, at 38, is the great and well-beloved leader of American men’s tennis. In a difficult era since that time 20 years ago when Andy Roddick won his Slam, no American has won a major. True, the decades were dominated by a fabulous handful — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray — who hogged most of the big prizes (by no means all, and Isner was one of those who saw to that) — but still it grated, because the U.S.A. used to be, yes, the No. 1 tennis power in the world, sharing — but only from time to time — the glory with Australia, Great Britain, and France. (RELATED: J.J. Wolf and Michael Mmoh Duke It Out)
Thanks to our wonderful girls — and especially the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena — American tennis remained a serious affair and in fact more people watch and play it now than probably ever before. The 70 thousand daily spectators at Flushing Meadow’s Billie Jeanne King Tennis Center, in Queens, N.Y., (I make the confess: the figure of 50 thousand in this space in an earlier dispatch was badly off) are here to say so. But still.
In these conditions, John Isner’s leadership was crucial. Tall, strong — slim for his six-ten height, at about two hundred thirty — supremely fit, Isner is not a self-absorbed obsessive maniac. Maybe that works for some athletes. Not him. He takes time to help his friends, lending an ear, giving advice, cheering up, and carrying on. Come on now, we’re good, it’s just that those others are better, but it will pass. Americans at the high levels of tennis needed this. And the fans needed to know, there’s a guy out there who’s what we want, who’ll carry us through this patch.
He is not only a good guy, a mensch. He is a patriot, a normal American, a family man, wife and four children whom he adores, a self-effacing champ, win or lose, generous to his adversaries. Polite, courteous, respects the rules, and accepts the breaks. That’s life, let’s live it, let’s live it right.
The Final Battle
The crowd wished he would stay. The Grandstand was about two thirds full at the beginning of the third set, when the momentum began to change. By the fifth set tiebreak — because of course it went to the tiebreak — it was packed. I confess (again, though different) I hadn’t noticed, nor that I was sitting in the middle of the sunny side and and my wife’s warning to wear a hat and put on some cream. It seems half those 70 thousand fans were here, on every seat and standing three and four deep on the walkway at the top of the bleachers.
Isner took a lead, let it slip. It has to be said fifth said tiebreaks at majors are played first-to-ten, not first-to-seven (with two point leads in both), and this is partly John Isner’s doing. Tiebreaks had been introduced years, maybe even a couple decades, earlier, but at the All-England Championships, Wimbledon, they were holding fast to tradition and you just played until someone got a two-game lead after 6-6.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, a Frenchman who became a doubles star — he is playing here this year — and who, be it said in passing, is also a very correct and nice man, played a long match. Neither could get the two game lead. They played for three days. The score at the end of the fifth set was 70-68, John Isner. The All-England Club began thinking about introducing the tiebreak, and they came up with the ten-point idea for the final set, which has been generally adopted.
The Isner-Mahut match would be an item for the Guinness Book of Records but it is, in its way, a simple statement of faith and dedication and what it takes to be an honest athlete, who refuses to give up.
John Isner never gave up, never will, whatever he does next. He netted a backhand volley — correct me if I err here, at that point my own vision was getting clouded by sweat and emotion, but I am pretty sure it was a volley he was going for — and that ended it.
And it should be noted that after he and Michael Mmoh embraced at the net, and after John sat down and put a towel over his face and let his shoulders heave, Michael, as the crowd clapped, pointed to him and joined the cheers.
The ace John Isner was and is and will be in what surely will be a life full of love and giving — in retirement that is, for it has been that always already — is much, much greater than the aces of his 17 years on the tour. He hit more aces than anyone else likely ever will, well over 14 thousand, and some of the fastest ones (his 157 mph in a Davis Cup match has not been topped).
But the real ace — the real ace is that tall man, calm and quiet and welcoming and attentive, a champion such as Kipling said,
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch, …
… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!