By Herman Wood
(July 31, 2021)At the Atlanta Open on Saturday in the afternoon match, Brandon Nakashima took on Emil Ruusuvuori. The two had never met at the professional level. Nakashima has been on a hot streak lately, playing Cameron Norrie in the finals of Los Cabos. As that was his first finals at this level, nerves may have played a part in the 6-2, 6-2 loss. Ruusuvuori’s last result was a loss in Bastad in the round of sixteen. At age 22, he has been on tour a year longer than the 19 year old Nakashima. The relative veteran started the match in the best possible way with a break of Nakashima’s serve in the very first game. Ruusuvuori consolidated the break with a service winner to roll out to a 2-0 lead. Nakashima finally got on track in his second service game, using his forehand to control rallies, to get to 1-2. The match stayed without serious challenge to serves until Nakashima was serving at 3-5. Despite holding a lead through most of the game, Nakashima was not able to withstand steady pressure from Ruusuvuori’s returns and ground strokes. An aggressive return earned Ruusuvuori the break and the first set, 6-3.
Starting the second set serving, Ruusuvuori may have gotten a bit too comfortable. He double faulted three times to hand Nakashima the break. He quickly consolidated to run out to his own 2-0 lead. As in the first set, the match settled back onto serve through 3-5, Ruusuvuori serving. Unlike Nakashima in the first set, Ruusuvuori played aggressive, accurate shots to force errors or encourage misses. Nakashima stepped to serve at 5-4, trying to force a third set. An ace, a service winner, a close miss of what would have been a winner from Ruusuvuori, and a winner down the line secured the set for Nakashima 6-4 to even the match at a set apiece.
Nakashima kept the momentum he had built in the second set getting an immediate break of Ruusuvuori. After Nakashima consolidated the break to 2-0, Ruusuvuori steadied his game to get on the scoreboard, though down 2-1. Nakashima dictated play in his service game when he was able to make his first serve. At 2-1, he had twice as many aces, 12, as his opponent. When Nakashima missed the first serve, Ruusuvuori’s chances in the point improved greatly. Ruusuvuori’s untimely double faults made holding his serve tough. Serving down 1-3, he seemed to find his groove with his serve, dictating to a 40-0 game, 2-3. Timely choices down the line, a drop shot that drew a ball easily finished and a persistent forehand rally kept Nakashima in the lead 4-2 on his service game. He conserved energy through Ruusuvuori’s serve to 4-3 in his favor. He seemed to even improve his second serve, drawing errors from Ruusuvuori on the return at times. As Nakashima held to 5-3, he was winning 92% of his first serve points. Ruusuvuori had to hold to stay in the tournament. On the first point, he missed wide. He continued digging a hole, missing into the tape to go down 0-30. He was able to work his way back to 30-30 and then forced a return error from Nakashima to get to 40-30. After missing his first serve, he engaged into an extended rally only to sail the ball long and bring about a deuce. Another sailed ground stroke brought Nakashima to the brink with a match point. He put pressure on with a strong return causing Ruusuvuori to again miss long. Nakashima advances to tomorrow’s finals, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. Speaking about the start of the match, Nakashima said “I got off to a slow start and my feet weren’t moving as much and my serve wasn’t firing as I would’ve wanted it to. Luckily I was able to regroup and pick it up in the second set. I served a lot better in the second set and it really helped my ground strokes.” Asked about his possible opponents tomorrow, he said “It’s definitely tough against the big servers. I’ll have to obviously return really well and take care of my service game.”
This will be his second consecutive final. If he is able to win the tournament, he will be the youngest champion at the Atlanta Open ever.
In the evening session, 23 year old Taylor Fritz played five time Atlanta Champion John Isner. The players have met twice, with the results being evenly split. Fritz has won the two most recent meetings. Fritz opened the match serving and held easily at love. Isner matched with a love service game of his own. The serving competition was on. No player got a single point against serve until the fourth game when Isner made two errors. Apparently it was a theme, as Fritz donated a pair of double faults in his next game. Isner stepped into an inside out forehand for a winner to earn three break chances. Isner missed two forehands before Fritz hit a service winner to take away the break chance, bringing the set to 3-2. Neither player could get more than two points against the other’s serve through 6-6 to take the set to a tiebreaker. At 1-2 in the tiebreaker, Fritz handed Isner a second serve he could do damage with and Isner did to earn a mini break. Isner stepped to serve up 3-2 and served his way to 5-2. Isner had his way again with a Fritz second serve to have set points. Fritz fought him off once, but Isner was serving at 6-3. A sailed Isner forehand made it 6-4. An ace finished the set for Isner 7-6(4).
The second set began much as the first with easy holds of serves. With Fritz serving at 3-4, Isner tried to apply pressure, but it was a matter of getting the Fritz first serve back in play. Isner was only able to earn two points and Fritz held to 4-4, Isner to serve. Fritz seemed to also reach for a little more, guessing correctly on Isner’s serve, forcing him to rally, eventually earning a break point. An Isner ace erased one break point. A double fault gave Fritz another. Another ace served as an eraser. Isner’s second serve forced a weak Fritz reply to earn Isner the game point. A weak service return that Isner finished off saved him the game. Fritz had to serve at 4-5 to stay in the match. Isner couldn’t challenge the Fritz serve. At 5-5, Isner serving, he struggled to make a first serve and Fritz made him pay, winning the first two points of the game. Finally, at 0-30, Isner made a first serve only for Fritz to guess correctly and hammer a return. Now down 0-40 and having to hit a second serve, Isner charged the net to be met by a low ball he just couldn’t handle. Game to Fritz along with an opportunity to serve the set out. Isner stood stooped over for several moments, the disappointment clear. Fritz was up for the task, firing three aces and encouraging an Isner error to draw the match even at a set apiece.
The third set resumed after a wardrobe change, which was quite necessary in the Georgia heat and humidity. Isner stepped up to serve the first game looking a bit fresher and was able to manage a hold. Fritz dug a little bit of a hole in his first service game, giving Isner a chance for an early break. He converted with a huge forehand winner. The crowd roared its approval as Isner repeatedly pumped his fist and encouraged the crowd.
On his very next game, as Isner started to serve, break in hand, Isner was hit with a time violation warning. He immediately protested to the chair, seeming to indicate that he was waiting for Fritz to become ready. The chair made no announcement, so the warning apparently stood. Fritz did take part in the conversation with the chair. Despite the distraction, Isner was able to hold easily to 3-0, Fritz to serve.
With the break in hand, Isner was not nearly as intense on Fritz’s service games. Both players held serve to 4-2. Fritz successfully attacked the Isner serve to earn 2 break points. Isner hit a volley winner and an ace to erase them. Another ace and a service winner earned him the game and a 5-2 lead with Fritz serving to stay in the match. Fritz executed well to put Isner down 30-0. Isner seemed to do no more than put the return in play leaving an open court to allow Fritz to get to 40-0. A Fritz double fault and an errant Isner return put the match on Isner’s racquet.
Predictably with the big serve, the game went ace, ace down the T, overhead off a short lob service return, only to be interrupted by a correct guess for a big service return from Fritz, and finally an ace to close the match. Match to Isner, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-3, along with another trip to the finals.
As this was the fifth meeting between the two, Isner was asked what was the difference tonight. “It was always going to be a super close match. I re-grouped after the second set. I had to change clothes. I think that helped me a little bit. It’s always a pleasure to play against Taylor. He’s much, much younger than me. It’s an amazing challenge.” When asked what he knew about his opponent tomorrow, Isner said “Well, not much prior to last week, but I know that he kicked my ass last week. We’ll see what I can do tomorrow. I think he’s nineteen years old. That’s crazy. I think I was on a boat fishing somewhere when I was nineteen. I’ll be looking forward to tomorrow’s match.”
Isner will play Nakashima for the trophy in Atlanta on Sunday at 5 PM. It will be historic for the tournament regardless of the outcome. If Nakashima wins, he will be the youngest champion. If Isner wins, he will be a six time winner, which puts him in very rare American air with Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors as the only Americans winning the same tournament for that many times. Of Americans, only Pete Sampras has won the same tournament more times, Wimbledon, seven times.