The Roger Federer Express rolled along after another strong performance over Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 7-5, 6-3.
Big John Isner served his way to victory over Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia 7-5, 7-6—including a lengthy 16-14 tiebreaker.
Since the Olympics tennis draw was announced, Federer fans have kept an eye on Isner's matches. Though Federer is the heavy favorite to win and move on to the semifinals, Isner is the scion to the prototype big server who represents a puncher’s chance on the fast grass courts.
The Lineage of Big Servers
The ATP tour has always featured a handful of big servers who can ride their weapon on any given day to defeat top-10 players.
In the 1979 U.S. Open quarterfinals against Bjorn Borg, left-hander Roscoe Tanner served at 140 mph and knocked over the net, according to Dave Scheiber of the Tampa Bay Times. Tanner also held the record for the fastest serve of all time at 153 mph, until Andy Roddick served at 155 in 2004. Tanner did it with a wooden racket.
Big-serving Kevin Curren found the new graphite rackets to his liking as he powered his way to the 1985 Wimbledon finals, including victories over John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
"Flying Dutchman" Richard Krajicek handed Pete Sampras his only defeat in eight years at Wimbledon and went on to hammer his way to the 1996 title.
Other big servers who have had even greater success and more to their overall games include Goran Ivanisevic and Roddick. They each won a Grand Slam title and often challenged the heavyweights of their time with their massive firepower serves.
Of recent note, Ivo Karlovic, Milos Raonic, Ryan Harrison and Isner have carried on the big-server tradition. Fans tune in to watch the radar gun and to marvel at their special skill. It’s like watching the home run derby at Major League Baseball’s All-Star game or watching NBA players at a slam dunk contest. There is always attention and fascination for power.
The problem for these servers is that they have not had enough all-around game to become tennis legends. While flavorful, there are too many holes in their games to sustain consistent dominance and become the best player in the world.
Many big servers understandably rely too much on the serve and don’t develop other areas to their game after mowing through lesser players in their formative years.
In addition, some of these big servers simply do not have the footwork or skills to be a Pete Sampras or Federer. Those are once-in-a-generation players.
Sampras had been developing all-court skills long before he became a great server. Sampras remarked in his autobiography with Peter Bodo, A Champion’s Mind, that his serve wasn’t much until 1989.
Isner and Raonic are young talents, and some articles have speculated when they will win Grand Slam titles. They have worked on their games, and their coaches are aware of developing their all-around talents.
But, it’s also a matter of talent, and the odds are slim that they can become great champions.
Toe-to-Toe in 2012
Isner’s two biggest wins of 2012 put him at the edge of the top 10. In February, with the USA at Switzerland in the Davis Cup, Isner defeated Federer on indoor clay 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2.
A month later at Indian Wells, Isner upset Novak Djokovic to oppose Federer in the finals. The Swiss Maestro avenged his Davis Cup defeat with a 7-6, 6-3 victory to capture the title.
Now their paths cross again in their quests for Olympic gold on Wimbledon’s grass.
Isner, currently ranked No. 11 on the ATP tour, is fresh off his third-round Olympics victory over ATP No. 8-ranked Tipsarevic. It was a match that showcased Isner’s obvious strengths and weaknesses.
His serve was unbreakable and didn’t give Tipsarevic a single break point the entire match. In the 16-14 tiebreaker, Isner consistently cranked serves at 218-224 kph (135-139 mph). For the two sets, he served up 22 aces.
But, Isner was outplayed in the rallies despite an impressive 37 winners and only 12 unforced errors. Tipsarevic failed to capitalize against the Isner serve. He also failed to defend the only break point he gave to Isner.
Isner was slow to retrieve some of Tipsarevic’s sideline angles and needed time to bend his legs on the backhand. At times, he missed with this preparation and plunked more than a few into the net.
Against Federer, Isner will have more pressure to serve big the entire match. He must take chances with his forehand and look to end rallies before Federer takes control. He will need to strike early against the more skilled technician who has made a habit of showing young players superior footwork.
Federer will be waiting after an impressive month on grass highlighted by the Wimbledon title. Though he had a few hiccups in the opening round versus Alejandro Falla, he has been his usual Federer self in sweeping past Julien Benneteau and Istomin.
Federer, like Sampras a generation ago, knows how to play tight grass-court matches, should it happen again. He rallied against Roddick in the Wimbledon final in 2004 and again in the epic 2009 Wimbledon final, breaking Roddick only in the last game of the match.
It takes special concentration and cool nerves to keep staring down the barrel of the big server’s gun. Aces will fly by, but champions are great at moving onto the next point and looking for another chance. It’s not easy to patiently stick to the game plan, but Federer will be ready.
It might take Federer a set, but he will eventually block back and time his share of Isner’s big serves. Federer dealt with this pressure in his key second-round match over Raonic on Madrid’s blue clay. In the end, it was his variety and opportunistic skills that helped him eke out the match.
On paper, the Fed Express should be able to roll along to the gold-medal final. He has rarely derailed in early-to-middle round matches, and he should be on track to steam ahead. His mighty serve may be the one to do the most damage, but it will appear as second in show.
Isner poses the stature and big serving to make this an interesting match. Should it become a tight serving duel, we could be looking at a rugged '90s Wimbledon barroom fight with aces flying out the window and tables overturned for a few precious break-point diamonds.