John Isner Reaches First Slam Semifinal

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The news of the day was Roger Federer’s shock exit at the hands of Kevin Anderson, and Rafael Nadal’s triumph in almost five hours over an inspired Juan Martin Del Potro. Just beyond the limelight, on Court 1, John Isner quietly made waves, reaching the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career by defeating Milos Raonic.

First Grand Slam Semifinal

Before this tournament, Isner’s best showing at a Slam had been a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open in 2011. However, Isner has been in fine form in 2018, winning a maiden Masters 1000 title in Miami. Raonic, a former Wimbledon finalist, was the favorite going into the match, but was unable to find a solution to Isner’s powerful ball striking.

Isner and Raonic have similar games, built around their imposing serves. Raonic has, in the past, backed up his serve with strong baseline play. He is tall at 6’5″ and can struggle at times with both movement around the court and with reaching for the low bouncing balls opponents can send his way on a surface like grass. Isner is even taller at 6’10”, which adds spice to his serve, but amplifies the same weaknesses for which all tall players must compensate. The two men’s respective records at Grand Slams demonstrates the importance of this five inch difference. While this is Isner’s deepest run at any Slam, Raonic has been a finalist at Wimbledon, a semifinalist at the Australian Open, a quarterfinalist at the French Open, and has reached the quarterfinals or farther at a Slam eight times, including his latest run at Wimbledon.

The match was close and, initially, appeared to follow the expected trajectory. Andy Murray pointed out in commentary for the BBC that a match between these two big servers would mean tiebreaks–and the first two sets of the match, which Raonic and Isner split, both ended in tiebreaks. Raonic won the first 7-5 and Isner the second 9-7.

Towards the tail end of the first set, Raonic called for the trainer to tend to an issue with his leg that he later said felt like a torn muscle. The injury clearly hampered him, especially on his serve. “To be able to jump to my serve, because I was doing that every single point I was serving was the toughest part.”

The degree to which the injury was hampering the big Canadian was not always clear point-to-point; however, it was obvious in the scoreline that he was having greater issues as the match wore on and he continued to play through the pain. In a contest where supremacy on serve was always going to be the main area that could separate the two men, for Raonic to have an injury that caused him discomfort while serving was enough to seal his fate. He was broken in each of the last two sets and lost to Isner 6-7(5) 7-6(7) 6-4 6-3.

Isner follows in the footsteps of fellow American Sam Querry. While Venus and Serena Williams have consistently reached the latter stages of Grand Slams for years, since Andy Roddick’s retirement, American men have struggled on tennis’ biggest stages. Isner will face off in his semifinal against another big serving opponent: Roger Federer’s conqueror, Kevin Anderson.

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