Unbroken Roger Federer falls to blizzard of aces from John Isner in Paris

Roger Federer is beaten in three sets by John Isner in the third round of the Paris Masters

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

Yes, it’s a cliche, but what a difference a day makes—especially in the final Masters tournament of the year in Paris Bercy.

The quality of the final 16 was indisputable, with all five active former champions present and correct—Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—plus all eight of the qualifiers and the two current reserves in the Race to London—the above men plus Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Richard Gasquet.

Paris was fortunate indeed, and the biggest stars seemed to be taking things in their super-fast stride. Six of the men featured in the third round had reached their allotted spot after trouncing their opponents in about one hour. Murray and David Goffin had taken less than an hour. Federer, against the not inconsiderable No28 Andreas Seppi, had arrived hot-foot from the fast courts of Basel as champion to dismiss the Italian in just 47 minutes.

He even surprised himself after finding the slow conditions in Paris a bit of a concern when he arrived: “That was one of my better opening matches!”

But he also recognised that his next match would be a different kettle of fish, played as it was against the one remaining man still in contention for a reserve berth in London, John Isner.

The tall American could claim one victory over Federer, in what at the time was a surprising victory on clay in Davis Cup. But on only one other occasion had he taken a set off Federer, back in their first meeting at the US Open in 2007. Even when it came to tie-breaks, as it had in their most recent match at this year’s US Open, Federer had the upper hand.

And make no mistake: Isner’s serve is a formidable weapon, generally the one that fellow players cite as the best in the game. Isner is one of three men this year to have hit a 1,000 aces in a season—the sixth year in a row that he has averaged that milestone, an average of 17 a match.

By the time he faced Federer for a quarter-final place in Paris, he was up to 18 aces per match, but that has been just part of the equation that saw him on course for his highest end-of-year ranking. For the 6ft 11in American has worked hard not just on his mobility but on his all-round attacking game. Now coming to the net was the routine rather than the exception, and on the slower surface in Paris, those tactics worked a treat.

His serve still topped out at 144mph, but the returns came back at him with just a little less zip than usual—and he ploughed his furrow to the net time and again. It is brave tennis for such a big man with such long limbs, but it paid off in spades in a performance that showed some remarkable facility and touch around the net.

Isner opened with two love holds and, come the sixth game, proved that his return of serve was in fine order too. He earned two break points against the Federer serve but the Swiss man’s variety and disguise challenges even the most agile opponents, and he held.

Indeed it was Isner’s serve that came under pressure next, after a love hold by Federer for 4-4. But the American faced down break point with a huge ace, and he made a fine volley winner to hold.

With both men giving little more away on the serve, it headed to a tie-break, and Isner took the first advantage with a forehand winner, made two aces for 4-1, and drew a wayward forehand from Federer for the set, 7-6(3).

The Paris crowd was subdued, but there was no getting away from the quality of what Isner was doing: 17 winners to Federer’s 14, 12 errors to the Swiss nine—but perhaps most telling, nine points from 11 ventures to the net. Federer had made just three from five.

Federer faced immediate difficulty in the first game of the second set, 15-40 down. Courtesy of a ripped forehand winner off a second serve. Federer offered up a third break chance with a wayward backhand, but eventually held.

Isner’s mobility was on full show in the second game as he raced to pick up a drop-shot and made a lunging volley, but Federer kept ahead. Then, a rare sight indeed, he called on a medic for treatment at the change of ends. He later revealed that his right arm was painful, but anti-inflammatories seemed to do the trick.

Isner showed great resolve to produce four aces in a row at 15-40 down, 2-2, but finally Federer got a break in the sixth game—enough to serve out the set, 6-3.

Still both men were making more winners than errors, and still Isner dominated the net stats. But the third set for Federer would be punctuated by missed opportunities and for Isner it was characterised by keeping to his tactics—attacking whenever possible but also defending well.

Federer hit two loose shots at 30-0 up on Isner’s first service game and came under pressure on several second serves in the fourth. Isner saved a break point in the fifth with a remarkable stop-volley winner, served up his 20th ace to save another in seventh game, but sure enough, it would take a final tie-break, as they stood all square, 103 points apiece.

Isner opened with a 141mph ace, Federer netted a high volley and then a backhand. Isner did not waver and served for 6-2, but Federer closed in, 6-5. It was not enough: Isner’s serving stood firm to the end, 7-6(5), with a tally of 27 aces, 54 winners overall, just 30 errors, and a remarkable 25 points from 38 at the net.

It had not been a bad day’s work for Federer either: 43 winners for 24 errors. But as he put it afterwards: “At the US Open I won my tie-breaks, here I lost. With John it’s like that. He served very well when needed… It’s tough to exit a tournament without losing your serve, but that’s how it can go against him.”

So a 47-minute opening win was followed by a 2hrs 16mins loss fewer than 24 hours later.

It was almost the same story for Ferrer, who is Isner’s next opponent. The 33-year-old Spaniard had sailed into the third round in 60 minutes with victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov, but he needed 2hrs 20mins to beat Grigor Dimitrov, from a break down in the final set, 6-7(4), 6-1, 6-4.

As it happens, Ferrer also holds a 5-1 lead over Isner, just as Federer had. But then the American’s win over the Spaniard came right here, in the quarter-finals, in 2011.

Also in the bottom half, Gasquet continued his run of attacking form to beat Nishikori, 7-6(3), 4-1, when the Japanese man was forced to retire with an abdominal injury.

At the other end of the draw, Djokovic needed over an hour and a half to beat Gilles Simon, 6-3, 7-5. He next plays Tomas Berdych, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-3, 6-4.

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