By Herman Wood
(August 1, 2015) ATLANTA, Georgia – John Isner took on rising American Denis Kudla in Saturday’s first semifinal at the Atlanta Open. Even some fans needed some help with the heat! At Wimbledon, he reached the round of sixteen. Kudla, already with five matches behind him due to having to qualify, has been playing very well. After getting through qualifying, Kudla took out fellow Americans Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock to get to Isner. If he could get by Isner, it would be his first tour level final. The men had exchanged holds to three all, when in the last game before a ball change, Kudla stepped way in on a second serve, blocking it back and Isner sailed a very makeable volley. Kudla consolidated with an easy hold at fifteen. The court looked extremely hot, though only Isner seemed to be leaving puddles of perspiration with every step. After another easy hold, Kudla had an opportunity to serve for the set. Isner wouldn’t go easily, earning a break point with a few Kudla errors. On his first opportunity, Kudla took the opening set 6-4.
The two-time defending champion Isner seemed to settle into an easier rhythm on his serve early in the second set. Kudla got a taste of Isner’s power when Isner stepped into some forehand returns and really got a lead in the point. He earned a break with a missed Kudla forehand of a floating Isner return that Kudla was trying to hit hard enough to win two points with one shot. The break spotted Isner a 3-1 lead which he quickly consolidated to 4-1. It was a very good thing for Isner’s number one fan, Justin. Justin is a diminutive young man who supports him vocally at every match. Isner has met with him many times and is very appreciative of Justin. Justin had buried his face in a towel since Isner had dropped the opening set. A second break of Kudla encouraged Justin even more, giving Isner the set 6-2. With the second break giving him the set, Isner could step out in the lead with each changeover of the deciding third set.
Isner won sixteen of sixteen points on his first serve in the second set. He started the deciding third set with another easy hold, only losing one point on serve. Kudla certainly had to hit more balls to hold his serve. Kudla really couldn’t make headway on Isner’s serve early, with Isner closing out the 3-2 service game with a 113 MPH second serve ace. Kudla did his part to hold his serve, forcing Isner to rally, certainly not his strength. It seemed that once Kudla got a lead in his service game, Isner was willing to let games go, not wasting as much effort to fight to stay in the game.
With Kudla serving at 3-4, Isner took a couple of big inside out swings from the ad court to get to thirty all. Kudla felt the pressure and double faulted to give the advantage and a break point to Isner. Isner took another huge swing at an inside out forehand and headed for the net. Kudla found the opening for the pass, getting back to deuce. Kudla again couldn’t make a first serve and Isner punished the forehand inside out for the winner and deuce again. Kudla found the formula, making Isner run on the deuce point and finally making his first serve into the Isner backhand, earning an error and four all.
At five all, Isner served a double fault, perhaps feeling a bit of pressure. The feeling passed quickly, erased with big serves, smashes, and a Kudla error. Kudla had to hold, serving at 5-6, to get to a tiebreaker. He felt some pressure, sailing a couple of balls to allow Isner to get even at thirty all. Isner went big on a second serve offering, though he just missed wide from the deuce court. With the ensuing game point, Kudla again felt the pressure, double faulting to bring up deuce. He made the serve, placed well, but couldn’t get the rally going, missing a ground stroke. Isner earned a second match point and Kudla missed wide. A challenge was made, though Isner was so comfortable with the call that he shook hands before it was played on the scoreboard. Match to Isner, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Isner added 25 more aces to his assault on the tournament. “That 2-1 game in the second set turned the match around. I took some big cuts, my shots found the court, and I was able to break and it relaxed me a lot from there.”
In the second semifinal, Gillies Muller chose to open serving, not surprisingly since he hasn’t been broken in any of his three matches. He’s only faced one break point. It’s easy to see why, with the big lefty hook coming down the T in the deuce court. Two aces helped him keep the streak alive in the first game. He really likes this location, saying he hopes they keep it here forever. Marcos Baghdatis matched him with an easy hold to get going, though without the aces. After a pair of matching holds, Baghdatis began to make adjustments in his return position, hoping to get a better look at the Muller serve. It didn’t help much in the outcome of the game, though he managed to hit more effective returns. Muller caught on at three all or Baghdatis guessed wrong on every Mueller serve. At times, it looked as if Baghdatis was running away from the Muller serve. Baghdatis never got a good swing in the seventh game, getting to his serve at 3-4. Fortunately for him, his play was equal to Muller’s serve and he had an easy hold. Finally, after another Muller hold, Baghdatis provided an opening. Muller successfully got more aggressive with a deep slice followed by an angled forehand. Baghdatis hung his next serve and Muller knocked the cover off it for another winner. Baghdatis steadied, working back first to thirty all, then 40-30 thanks to a Muller errant return, and then the game with a nifty slice followed by a finishing volley to even the set again, but at five all. The favor of an opening was returned by Muller at that point, with some loose play and a double fault. A net cord nearly gave Baghdatis a break point, but the ball rolled back. Muller managed the hold with four straight points, the last a service winner.
Continuing a theme for the week, it was time for a tiebreaker. Muller got a mini break, but gave it back with a surprising double fault. In the ensuing rally off a Baghdatis serve, Muller was able to take advantage of a bit of a mishit and punish an inside out forehand for a winner. A blast off a Baghdatis second serve secured the first set for Muller 7-6 (4).
As the second set opened still without threat of service break, Muller began to play more from inside the court with Baghdatis playing from behind the court. Perhaps he pressed a bit much, finally giving Baghdatis a look at a break point thanks to a double fault. On a second serve, Muller hit the top of the net and it sailed long, making it a double double fault and finally a break of Muller’s serve in the tournament. Baghdatis had served first, giving him a two love lead in the set.
At 4-1, Baghdatis forced Muller to make more effort to hold his service game, nearly standing OTP (outside the perimeter, I-285, which circles the city and roughly defines Atlanta) to make returns. This gave him time to read the Muller serve better and do more damage with returns. In doing so, he appeared to be in a dance off with several lines people. Muller managed the hold anyway, keeping it to one break, 4-2. A subsequent easy hold by Baghdatis took him to 5-2 with Muller to serve. Muller’s error rate was up significantly for the second set. In that critical game, Muller stayed focused and held at love. It looked as if Baghdatis was conserving his energy to serve the set out and have enough in the tank for the deciding third. Baghdatis closed the second set with a net cord that proved too much for Muller to handle. The match headed to a third set, even with a 7-6 set to Muller and a 6-3 set to Baghdatis. It appeared that Baghdatis had the momentum.
Muller opened with another easy hold and appeared to take the momentum away from Baghdatis, also making him work hard from behind to hold and even the deciding set at one game apiece. Muller got loose with his serve, however, double faulting away another game to give Baghdatis an early break and 2-1 lead. Baghdatis consolidated, to take a 3-1 lead. He was still returning from at least the front row. Muller felt the return pressure, double faulting to open his next service game. He did wise up to the tactic, starting to follow his serve forward and hitting drop shots that Baghdatis had no chance to track down from out in Atlantic Station. It was enough to keep him on serve and within one break through 3-4. It turned out to be critical, as Baghdatis got a bit tentative on his next service game and Muller was able to get a very patient break to get things even again at four. With a hold, he could put pressure on Baghdatis to have to hold to stay in the match. Baghdatis showed his determination on the first point of Mullers 4-4 service game, tracking down big shot after big shot, even sliding down before finally flicking a forehand winner. Muller steadied, getting finer with placement of his serve, forcing weak returns and hitting a 125 MPH ace, finally holding due to a Baghdatis missed return.
Now with the pressure squarely on his shoulders, serving at 4-5 to stay in the match, Baghdatis stepped to the line. The pressure didn’t affect his stroke- making consecutive drop shots for a 30 love lead. Combined with an ace and service winner, Baghdatis had an easy hold to 5-5. It appeared Muller could stay ahead with a routine hold, but a few forehand errors into the bottom of the net and Baghdatis had a break point. Muller found his forehand again and held on. After another double fault, he gave Baghdatis a break point looking at a second serve. An errant forehand, this time wide, and Muller was broken. Baghdatis would serve for the match.
Muller worked to get an opening in the game, chasing down a drop shot, and running Baghdatis. Baghdatis felt the pressure, double faulting to give Muller three break points. The first was saved by some great geometry from Baghdatis, with an angled drop shot, but Muller got the break on the very next point with an open court winner.
Returning to the tournament theme, it was time for a tie breaker. Baghdatis got a mini break with the first point and made it hold up with an ace for 3-0 that Muller futiley challenged. The mini break held up all the way to the Baghdatis serving 5-4. On that point, Muller hit a high bouncing second serve earning an error from Muller. The final point was another service return error and Baghdatis again kissed the court, headed for the finals and John Isner. If he manages the win tomorrow, a kiss of the court would be most unwise- it could lead to a nasty burn!
When asked about his strategy of moving so far back for the return, Baghdatis said, “I gave it a try early in the second set and it confused his targets. The key to tomorrow is messing up his game and finding a way to win.” Isner is 5-0 against Baghdatis.
Some fine tennis was played, though the sold out crowd never really seemed to get going. They were appreciative of fine play, especially from Baghdatis skidding about the court and running down balls hit into Atlantic Station. It was cooler with the sun down, so heat wasn’t as much of a problem for the players or the crowd. This could prove to be a big factor for tomorrow’s final, with a forecast temperature of 91 degrees and very little wind at match start time.
Herman Wood is in Atlanta covering the BB&T Open action from around the grounds for Tennis Panorama News, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/hermanewood.