(July 29, 2018) ATLANTA – No. 1 seed John Isner took on No. 8 seed Ryan Harrison for the BB&T Atlanta Open in the final on Sunday. Isner came through the top half of the draw by taking down the seventh seeded Mischa Zverev and fourth seeded Matt Ebden. Isner says, “It’s the most successful tourney of my career.” Isner has won the tournament four of the past five years, interrupted only by Nick Kyrgios in 2016. The hot, gritty surface helps his serve take an even higher bounce making it difficult for the returner and easier in that he does not need to bend as deeply to hit his strokes. The final this year is a rematch of last year’s final. Harrison had to get past James Duckworth, Lukas Lacko, a very tight match against number three seed Hyeon Chung, and Cameron Norrie. Harrison lost the first set in every one of his matches. A recurring theme for him early on was the destruction of a racket at an early part of those matches. After those outbursts, he seemed to very much settle himself. His toughest match was against Chung, which ended in a seesaw tiebreaker featuring full breaks as well as mini breaks.
Isner opened serving, and as expected dominated the game with two aces. Harrison started slowly, digging a 0-30 hole before he was able to earn his first point on his serve via an Isner error. He was able to steady himself to hold to one game apiece. As of the third Isner service game, he had not given up a single first service point to Harrison. That included three aces. Harrison was doing a much better job on Isner’s second serve, winning four out of the five chances. Harrison was actually winning a higher percentage of his second serves than first, though both were above 75% through his third service game, taking the first set to three games apiece.
Service games for both men were relatively easy for both men, with no break points through Isner’s service game to take the match to 5-4. Both men did manage to get a couple of points against serve to take games to thirty, but were never able to challenge any further. Harrison stepped up to serve at 4-5, serving to stay in the set. At that time, Isner had only managed four points on Harrison’s service game. Isner was only able to get one more, taking the set to five games apiece. Isner looked a bit tired in that game, allowing Harrison to get games to deuce twice, despite Isner being on the verge of holding, once on an ill-advised foray to the net by Isner and once on an Isner misfire on an attempted wide groundstroke. The equalizer, obviously, was Isner’s serving, first and second. A third deuce and another Isner error off the ground handed Harrison his first chance at a break and Harrison grabbed it with a deep return to the backhand that Isner could do nothing with. Break to Harrison, with a chance to serve the set out, serving at 6-5. Isner attempted to fight in Harrison’s service game, but Harrison was able to dominate with his serve, with an easy hold to earn the first set 7-5.
Serving at 1-1 in the second set, Isner’s struggle was visible to everyone. Harrison had three chances to break on Isner second serves, but each time Isner rallied with a winning ground stroke. On the deuce point that led to the Isner hold, he was forced to the net and gave Harrison three chances on which Harrison could have put the ball away, but Isner continued to fight, bending low for one shot and blocking another with the racquet the only thing keeping him from being impaled by the ball. Harrison followed up the near break with a relatively easy hold to take the second set to two games all. Harrison earned another break point in Isner’s next service game with a lucky block of an Isner blast from the net that fluttered over the big man. Isner fought it off, holding without giving Harrison any further opportunistic to break. Harrison again stepped to serve behind in the set, 2-3, but on serve.
After almost getting broken twice, Isner got the first point on the Harrison serve and took encouragement from it, looking rejuvenated, rallied and rushed the net, earning a break to go up 4-2 in the second set. Back on his own serve, he again struggled with ground strokes, unable to get the outside of the ball to direct it the way he wanted. Volleys were only a bit better, popped higher than optimal, often giving Harrison a chance to run shots down. As usually is the case when Isner is successful, he bailed himself out with two big serves to hold, 5-2. Harrison held up his end with an easy hold, forcing Isner to serve it out. A deep return at Isner’s feet gave Harrison some encouragement, but Isner’s serve was more than enough, set to Isner 6-3, bringing the match even at one set apiece.
Both men’s previous matches had gone three sets. Harrison even went back out after his win yesterday to win again to get to the doubles final as well. Harrison left the court, but Isner stayed behind putting fuel and hydration in.
Harrison opened the third set serving. Isner’s level of effort improved greatly. After working his way to thirty all, Isner caught a break. He stayed alive in a point until he framed a ball that turned into a mid court lob that Harrison sent into the net to give Isner a break point. An inside out forehand that hit at the intersection of the line and the service line that was unsuccessfully challenged by Harrison gave Isner what he needed for the break. Harrison, however, was unsuccessful with a break of his racquet, employing his foot to finish the job. In earlier matches, a break of the racquet had seemed to help Harrison turn matches around. Isner was not about to let that happen. Some big serves and forehands provided what was needed for a quick hold to consolidate, 2-0 Isner.
Harrison was able to hold to get into the set to put a little pressure on Isner’s serve at 2-1. Isner just continued to go about his service game with big serves and quick finishes at the net to get to 3-1. An easy Harrison hold put the third set at 3-2, Isner to serve. Another easy hold for 4-2 Isner, Harrison to serve.
On Harrison’s service game at 2-4, Isner very nearly put the match on his racquet. He had multiple break point opportunities, some on Harrison second serves, but Harrison held on. It seemed Harrison got a bit fired up about something that occurred on an Isner challenge of a Harrison first serve. His racquet head speed seemed to have dropped before the discussion with the chair umpire. Harrison finally managed the hold. After a painless Isner hold, Harrison served to stay in the match down 3-5. Harrison made some athletic gets and Isner dumped a couple of volleys to make the game a routine hold for Harrison.
After almost two hours of effort, Isner stepped to the service line four points from another championship. The crowd let him know they appreciated the effort. The first point was a wide serve that Harrison returned weakly for an Isner put away. Another wide serve in the ad court, another easy put away, and an ace put him at championship point. A service winner down the T and it was done, game, set, match Isner, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4.
By winning this championship again, Isner joins Hall of Famers Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe as the only American men to win the same tournament five times.
Herman Wood was covering the BB&T Atlanta Open for Tennis Panorama News.