Fowler: Isner takes loss to Federer in stride

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comAugust 2, 2012 

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LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 02: John Isner of the United States returns a shot to Roger Federer of Switzerland during the Quarterfinal of Men's Singles Tennis on Day 6 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wimbledon on August 2, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

CLIVE BRUNSKILL — Getty

— Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

On Thursday, it wasn’t for John Isner – who grew up in Greensboro and is a Carolina Panthers fan so huge that when we saw each other at the Olympics the first question he asked was, “What’s the deal with Jeff Otah?”

Isner also happens to be the best U.S. men’s tennis player. Thursday, he was holding his own with the world’s No. 1 player, Roger Federer, in the Olympic quarterfinals on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It was the first time Isner had played on the court that could serve as seven-time Wimbledon champion Federer’s backyard.

Isner had lost the first set 6-4. But the second set was 6-all and in a tiebreaker, with Isner trailing 5-6. Federer held a match point, but Isner was serving.

Isner cracked a serve to Federer’s backhand. Federer got enough on the ball to chip it back. His backhand slice looked like it might hit the net.

And it did hit the net. And then it dribbled over.

Game, set, match.

The Centre Court crowd moaned in sympathy for Isner, whose dream of an Olympic medal thudded to the grass when the ball did.

But Isner, 27 years old and the world’s 11th-ranked player, refused to use that final point as a reason for his loss.

“It goes against you sometimes, it goes for you sometimes,” Isner said. “It’s a little unfortunate, but it’s not an excuse. He was better than me today.”

Ultimately, Federer was – but the difference was small. The two played 141 points. Federer won 72 of them to Isner’s 69.

Isner, who at 6 feet 9 inches tall has one of the best serves in the game, was broken only once. But Federer held serve every time, moving into a Friday semifinal matchup against Juan Martin del Potro as he tries to win the Olympic singles tournament for the first time.

Federer said he felt “bad, really” when he won on a net cord.

“But overall I felt I played a great match,” he said. “So did John. … It was obviously a nail-biter at the very end.”

I’ve written before about how big a Panthers fan Isner is. His autumn Sundays revolve around the team.

Isner has been to more than 20 games and he sometimes watches Panthers games on his laptop at 3 a.m. when he’s playing in Asia or Europe. He and wide receiver Steve Smith are close friends.

But Thursday was the best indication yet of how closely he follows the team. Minutes after losing, he really did ask: “What’s the deal with Jeff Otah?”

That definitely was the first time I’ve heard Otah’s name uttered at the Olympics. But Isner knew the whole story about the trade that suddenly wasn’t.

Isner had a very good Olympic tournament despite the quarterfinal loss. Although the Wimbledon crowd knows Isner mostly for his remarkable, 70-68 fifth-set victory there during 2009, Isner doesn’t have a very good record at the grand slam event. That’s one reason why he had never made it to Centre Court. Isner had beaten Federer once before. That was on a slow, clay court this year in Switzerland in a Davis Cup upset that Isner pulled off for one of the biggest wins of his life.

But Isner was sharp at the Olympics. He didn’t lose a set for his first three matches, which meant he stuck around far longer than any of the other U.S. men in the draw. And he played Federer just the way he should – attacking constantly and not getting into the extended baseline rallies that Federer wanted because of his substantial quickness advantage.

Said Federer of Isner: “He’s now a solid top-10, top-15 player, and I expect him to stay there. He’s got the game to go deep in every tournament he plays and on every surface.”

“It was a lot of fun,” Isner said. “It’s an incredible court. The crowd was great. The conditions were tough – windy and blustery, and I would have preferred them to be calm, but I don’t think that was really a factor.”

Isner led the second-set tiebreaker at 5-4. But Federer then pulled off two huge serves. And then came Federer’s heartbreaking net-cord winner.

“It was a well-played tiebreaker on both sides,” Isner said. “He served very well at 5-4 and 5-all. He’s No. 1 in the world for a reason. And guys like that seem to get those breaks at the end. I’ve had a lot of those go my way, too, over the years, so I guess it all evens out.”

That’s a good way to look at it. But Isner always has been an optimist – which is not bad when you are a Panthers fan.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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