Australian Open 2012: Isner beats Nalbandian as Nadal cruises
American John Isner's "˜Goliath' survives his "˜David' Nalbandian in an epic five-set battle on day three at Melbourne Park
It was a day that started in the most straightforward of ways. On Rod Laver, Na Li polished off the first match for the loss of four games, Kim Clijsters raced through her win for the loss of only one, and Rafael Nadal dismissed the oldest man in Melbourne, Tommy Haas, in three.
It was the same story on Hisense: Tomas Berdych, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki lost not a set between them and Roger Federer did not even need to hit a ball, his opponent withdrawing with back trouble. The only real ripple around the grounds was the fall of No8 seed Mardy Fish: it took Alejandro Falla two tie-breaks and a 6-3 set to take the man from Bogota into Round 3.
But gradually, eyes and ears turned to the Margaret Court arena where a match worthy of everyone’s attention was unfolding.
There can be few occasions when the injury-blighted, often less-than-prime condition of David Nalbandian could endure a four-hour match better than his opponent, but the second round meeting between the charismatic Argentine and John Isner began to look like one of them.
It looked at first as though Nalbandian, who turned 30 on the first day of 2012, would be making his exit with undue haste when he went 3-0 down, but his renowned soft hands and nimble feet took the next four games and the first set, 6-4.
He then quickly broke Isner in the second, but the formidable serve and volley of the tall American countered the brilliant returning skills of the Argentine to take it 6-3. Nalbandian hit back in the third, 6-3, and was the first to break in the fourth, but Isner channelled his emotions to level at 5-5 and edged Nalbandian in the tie-break.
The final set became a microcosm for the match, a back-and-forth battle of wills and diminishing energy reserves. With Isner cramping badly and Nalbandian finding a spring in his step, they reached the six-all boundary that, in New York, would have signalled a deciding tie-breaker. But in Melbourne they would continue until one of these contrasting men””a 5ft11in David versus a 6ft9in Goliath””sank to the court in pool of sweat.
For Nalbandian, the task was a mountain of a challenge, serving second and facing time and again a serve that regularly approached 140mph: the American’s ace tally now climbed towards 40. For Isner, the challenge was his own body, cramp limiting his movement on all his shots except that life-saving serve.
Then, at 8-8, Nalbandian had his chance, a break point, only to see one of the finest two-handed backhands in tennis fail him as a down-the-line chance clipped the net.
A huge forehand cross-court winner gave Nalbandian a second bite of the cherry but his backhand failed again, this time zipping past his opponent but missing the sideline.
Isner’s 41st ace saved the day but, for a third time, Nalbandian scored a break point chance with a forehand winner onto the line. There followed what may become the most contentious moment of the tournament and cranked the drama up one more notch for the already bubbling crowd.
Isner hit an ace, it was called out, but then called in by the umpire. Amid the explosion of noise, Nalbandian hesitated, finally challenged, but the umpire denied what he considered to be a late appeal. Despite further debate with the referee, Nalbandian found himself back at deuce””and his chance was gone. Isner, now buoyed up by adrenalin, got the better of a net exchange and held serve with one more ace.
A couple of forehand bullets took the American within touching distance of a decisive break at 30-30 and he chased down a cross-court drop shot like a man inspired to earn match point. He chased down one more drop shot, outplayed Nalbandian in a tit-for-tat net exchange and, after four hours and 41 minutes, scored a dramatic win.
That final set, all 99 minutes of it, showed little difference between this David and Goliath””60 points to 58 in the Argentine’s favour””except on serve. Isner produce 18 aces from a final tally of 43, a mountain too high for his opponent to scale.
But what started as a quiet day in Melbourne was not done yet. As No16 seed Isner left one court, a match was unfolding along almost identical lines on Hisense where No13 seed Alexandr Dolgopolov was also fighting for survival in a match of significantly less quality but almost as much drama.
In a seesawing contest, the No98-ranked German Tobias Kamke won the opening set 6-4 before the Ukrainian fired into life to take two sets in under 50 minutes, 6-1, 6-1. But Kamke levelled, 6-3, and they, too, headed to 6-6 in the fifth””Dolgopolov all dancing feet and slice, Kamke a clean-hitting tactician.
It was the German, with the advantage of serving first, who gave his opponent the fatal opening with a double fault and a loose forehand. Dolgopolov seized his chance with a swerving forehand to the back corner and broke. In a return to his dazzling best, the Ukrainian played drops, lobs and angles to seal the match, his second successive five-setter.
His efforts will be rewarded with the intimidating prospect of Australian teenager, Bernard Tomic””a match that promises to produce the same kind of fireworks on Day Five as those enjoyed under the floodlights on this third day.
Before that, though, the noisiest match of the day was exploding into life back on Margaret Court. Marcos Baghdatis””with similar talent and a similar new slimline look to Nalbandian””was being torn to a frazzle by the scintillating backhand of Stan Wawrinka.
Two sets down, and a clutch of four rackets broken to smithereens, Baghdatis continued to fight for his life as the clock ticked towards midnight””and a whole new day.