John Isner always looked out of it. Droopy shoulders. His lumbering walk.
But then he’d whack a serve that ignited fan hysteria.
It was impressive, but it wasn’t enough.
In his third Citi Open final, the 6’10” American came up short once again, despite serving 20 aces on Sunday.
As the match marched on, Isner’s energy sagged and dismal returning stats followed: 31% in the first; 25% in the second; 16% in the third. With an eager and aggressive Kei Nishikori standing close to baseline ready to pounce, the encounter hinted of certain doom right after the first set ended.
The No. 2 seed broke to open the second.
“That was a pretty big turning point,” Isner admitted. “I had so much momentum after playing that great game at five-four in the first. I like playing ahead in sets. If I’m up 1-0 or 2-1 and hold that first game the pressure’s still on him and I’m sort of free-rolling out there.
“But that break gave him some momentum and confidence. He was already pretty confident coming in to this match because he made the final.”
As a result, Nishikori won his first Citi Open title — his 10th ATP World Tour title — over No. 8 seed Isner, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. The win bumps the former US Open finalist up one spot on the ATP ladder — matching his March 2015 career high of No. 4 and pushing French Open champion Stan Wawrinka down to No. 5. Within striking distance of the Top 10 is Isner, who climbs to No. 12.
“I didn’t make enough inroads on his first serve, which I struggle with a lot of times,” Isner said.
“From there, he’s arguably the best in the world from the baseline — aside from Novak [Djokovic]. And he started serving better in the second and third sets.”
What makes Nishikori so good, according to Isner?
“He’s on top of the baseline. His backhand is world class. His backhand cross court is incredible; he dictates play very well. He’s quick and he knows what he’s doing with the ball.
“He’s blessed with a lot of talent when it comes to things like that.”
Nishikori’s top assets were his return of serve and serving percentages.
“I think I returned really well today” Nishikori explained. “I broke his serve once in each set. I had to guess sometimes, but was there. And I think it was a great percentage of my first serves, 91%.
“I think it was really important to make a lot of first serves. He can step in on my second serves.”
Nishikori is now 8-3 in finals played on hard courts — 10-5 on all surfaces.
“You don’t get good rhythm, playing big servers, especially with my game,” Nishikori said. “I try to play a lot of rallies and to get good rhythm on baseline points. I tried to move the ball a lot, not to just his backhand, but in both directions.”
Isner’s flagging energy was directly tied to his performance on court over the last two weeks. He had won Atlanta last Sunday for his 10th career ATP World Tour title.
“Losing stinks, for sure,” Isner said. “But, I’ve had a very good two weeks. I can’t get complacent now; [I’ll go] up to Montreal and put some more good results together.”
Isner’s record at Citi Open is his best on tour. His career win-loss is 23-8, reaching the semifinals or better four times. His breakout year was 2007; as a wild card right out of the University of Georgia, he made it all the way to the final — defeating former Top 5 players Tim Henman and Tommy Haas, along with Gael Monfils in a legendary quarterfinal that fans still remember in the nation’s capital.
Andy Roddick beat Isner in the final, the last all-American final at this tournament.
“In the three finals I lost here I certainly have not lost to any slouches,” Isner said. “Andy Roddick, del Potro, and now Nishikori. So getting to the finals of an event like this is something to be proud of, although I’d like my name on [this] center court.
“But this field was loaded.”
Isner did beat Nishikori in Miami earlier this year in their only previous meeting.
“I was trying to more aggressive than before,” Nishikori said, about change in strategies. “In Miami I was just putting in the ball and waiting for his mistakes.”
With the last major tournament in sight, Nishikori is aiming to parlay this momentum into another successful US Open Series.
“It’s very important for me to play well this summer season,” Nishikori said. “I didn’t play these two masters [Rogers Cup and Cincinnati] last year. So I’ll try to do well these next two Masters. But I’m really excited about playing the US Open and on the big stage. I love that tournament.”
Although Nishikori was happy with his victory and glowed with pride, he had no plans to celebrate.
“I really have to prepare. I’ll just relax and recover first. I think it’s going to be really a calm night.”
Perhaps that’s why Nishikori has now won three titles this season and why Isner has such high regard for his skills, “He works his tail off.”
Nishikori earned 500 ATP ranking points and a check for $343,000 USD.