The last American standing at the 2014 BNP Paribas Open fell Saturday afternoon, as No. 12 John Isner lost to No. 2 Novak Djokovic in three sets, 7-5, 6-7(2), 6-1, in Indian Wells, Calif.
Coming into match, the two had met six times before. Isner's two wins both came in a Masters event on American soil, so there wasn't an intimidation factor to be had. Isner knew he could win this, and he went right after Djokovic as a result.
It's not far off to say that this was one of Isner's best matches over the past few years, even if it came in a losing effort. As the New York Times' Ben Rothenberg pointed out, the 28-year-old displayed a patience on the baseline that's usually absent in his game:
John Isner looking so much more comfortable in baseline rallies than he has in the past. Doesn't look eager to bail out of rallies. #BNPPO14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) March 15, 2014
In addition, there were more than a few moments when he could've crumbled, but instead, Isner kept fighting and clawed his way back into the match.
But the first set demonstrated why Djokovic is one of the best players in the world. Give him a tiny opening, and it's game over.
In the 10th game of the first set, Isner had three break-point opportunities while up 5-4. However, he couldn't shut the door, and the "Djoker" not only held serve, but he also followed by breaking Isner's serve in the next game, taking a 6-5 lead:
Down 4-5, 0-40, Djokovic saves three set points, and follows that by breaking Isner for a 6-5 lead. He'll serve for the first. #BNPPO14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) March 15, 2014
Djokovic would win the next game to take the first set.
To his credit, Isner didn't fall apart in the second. In fact, he came back even stronger.
The shoe was on the other foot. Rather than Isner looking to put away Djokovic, it was the other way around. Twice the Djoker was on serve to win the match, and twice Isner broke, per Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline:
We are going three sets. John Isner salutes the crowd and takes the breaker 7-2. Djokovic served for the match twice and never saw a MP.— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) March 15, 2014
You always know Isner is going to serve well, but what was so surprising about the second set was how well he was hitting his backhand, per Erik Gudris of Adjusting the Net. Backhand winners have rarely been synonymous with Isner's game, but he was nailing them in that second set.
John Isner, on the strength of his backhand, steals 2nd set from Djokovic. #BNPPO14— Erik Gudris (@ATNtennis) March 15, 2014
And yes, I am surprised I wrote that last tweet.— Erik Gudris (@ATNtennis) March 15, 2014
The crowd at Indian Wells came alive after that second set, and Isner was brimming was confidence. Perhaps he could pull off the huge upset.
But by the time the third set rolled around, he faded quickly. That's the problem when playing Djokovic. He's an unstoppable cyborg who knows no physical limits. And for a player with as limited a skill set as Isner, sooner or later, you'll run out of ideas.
Also working against Isner was his knee. The issue first cropped up in the second set, but it then became more prevalent in the third:
Djokovic scraps out a hold and he leads 4-1. Should be enough, especially with Isner struggling with his knee. But…who knows. #bnppo14— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) March 15, 2014
Between Djokovic's unrelenting nature and Isner's bad wheel, the third set was over quickly.
Djokovic will play Roger Federer in the final on Sunday. The two have played 32 times, with Federer owning the head-to-head advantage, 17-15. Federer also won the last match, at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in late February.
The news isn't all bad for Isner. As Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times reported, the American will climb back into the top 10, even with the semifinal loss. In the morass that is American men's tennis, Isner stands head and shoulders above the rest, and not just because he's 6'10" tall.