Two of the world's top three ranked players were given almost unjustly difficult draws in the first round of the French Open this year. Roger Federer drew Feliciano Lopez who recently fell out of the top 32 and Rafael Nadal drew the big serving American John Isner, who also fell out of seed contention after a dismal clay season leading up to Roland Garros.
If either one was going to have problems with their first round foe, fresh money had to have been on Federer. Lopez is an experienced clay-courter, one who has played Federer tough in the past. Isner, however, is the antithesis of a good clay-courter and has never beaten Nadal on any surface -- much less in a tournament where Nadal has only lost one match in seven years -- and in the tournaments that preceded the French, he looked lost on the clay.
Yesterday after his win, Federer, as he always does, crushed a ball into the rafters of Chatrier Court aiming for the Swiss flag that hangs high above the stands. As it was throughout his breezy three set stomping of Lopez, his aim was dead on. No problems for the one-time French Open champ.
That left Nadal and Isner's match this morning. Expectedly, Nadal took care of business against Isner in the first set, waiting out the big server for an opportunity to break late in the set and put him away like the silent assassin he has become. Once again, Isner looked lost on the court and in for a long -- or rather... short -- day.
But Isner, as most 6'6"+ tennis players ought to, possesses a deadly weapon that even the best players in the world can do nothing to defend against: a gigantic serve, or as it was for Isner today, an SMD (Serve of Mass Destruction).
Isner pushed the world's number one way back in the court with his slice out wide to the backhand and his flat serve out wide to the forehand. Nadal had a lot of trouble getting into any type of rhythm -- which was evident due to the uncharacteristic ground stroke rallies Nadal lost to the less-than fleet of foot Isner. Isner's devastating serve was the equalizer for the second and third sets, which the American won in tiebreakers, pushing Nadal to make a comeback and win his first French Open five-setter in his career.
Perhaps Nadal switched on a gear he felt he hadn't needed for the early part of the match, or it's possible that the 240 lb. Isner ran out of Diesel fuel for that molten flame thrower of a serve he employs, but in either case, Nadal bucked up, attacked and beat the American rather easily in the last two sets to take it 3 sets to 2.
Nadal's comeback was impressive. This was no qualifier who was playing the best match of his life. Isner is a world class player who decided that practice on clay -- which appeared to pay off and will continue to do so in the future when he doesn't draw Rafael Nadal in the first round -- was more important than his rankings, which pushed him into the non-seeded position he found himself in.
However, there was something that I saw in today's match that would alarm me if I were a Rafa fan. There's a good chance Nadal and Novak Djokovic will face off in the finals of this tournament. Djokovic has turned into an attacking and counter-punching threat and that style, as we have seen over the last four times Rafa and Nole have played one another (Djokovic taking all four matches), has very much bothered Nadal.
Today in his match against Isner, Nadal was noticeably rattled by Isner's unrelenting serving clinic. In the two tiebreakers, Nadal was very uncomfortable, even on his own serve, and it looked like it was due to how Isner imposed his will onto Nadal, something very uncommon for the Spaniard.
I'm not comparing Djokovic's game to Isner's, but in a way, when Isner is serving as well as he did today, their games can similarly wear a player down. If Nadal wants to win another French Open, and Djokovic is the one standing in his way to do so, he's going to have to learn to deal with that type of adversity.