Photo by Michael Buckelew
NORCROSS -- Third seeded John Isner's post-match comments on Friday following his quarterfinal win over Yen-Hsun Lu nearly proved prophetic when he said his semifinal matchup against Gilles Muller could come down to a tie break to decide it.
What Isner didn't know was that tie break came in the second set and he actually lost it.
But last year's finalist rebounded beautifully and cruised home in the third and final set, propelling Isner to a 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-1 victory at the 2011 Atlanta Tennis Championships and into today's final against No. 1 seed Mardy Fish.
Fish was solid in his 6-2, 6-4 victory over 19-year-old American Ryan Harrison, who had worked his way through three rounds to make it to his first semifinal of an ATP event.
Today's championship, which is a repeat of last year's classic final between Isner and Fish, will get under way at 3 p.m. on Racquet Club of the South's Stadium Court.
Isner and Muller began the first set by holding serve through the first 10 games until Muller double-faulted in the 11th game to give Isner a 6-5 lead.
From there, Isner served out the game and took the opening set 7-5.
The second set started similarly to the first set with both players holding serve through the first 10 games. However, Muller fought off two break points in the 11th game and eventually held for a 6-5 lead.
Isner then held to set up a tie break to determine the second set and Muller took advantage of some Isner unforced errors to win 7-3 and take the set, setting up a deciding third set.
That's when Isner caught his second wind during the break, actually going into the locker room to change into a complete set of dry clothes, and looked refreshed and revitalized in rolling home in the third set.
"I sweat a lot and I know (changing after the second set) helped me against James (Blake)," Isner said. "If it happens tomorrow, I'll do it again. It definitely refreshes me."
Isner, who came into the tournament ranked No. 35 worldwide as he tries to move into the top 32 as the U.S. Open draws closer next month in New York, raced out to a 5-0 lead by breaking Muller twice and holding his serve throughout the set.
That's when it appeared some frustration set in for Muller, who came into the tournament ranked No. 82 on the ATP World Tour, as the Luxembourg resident lost his zip on the court and even broke a racquet.
"It was pretty hard, especially mentally, because I had a lot of hard work in the second set to win that set and right away in the third one, I threw all my chances away and that was kind of hard to take," Muller said. "But I have to be fair to (Isner) because he played well straight away in the third set and there's not a whole lot I could have done."
Isner recorded 28 aces and got in 71 percent of his first serves during the match to cut down on long points and energy spent on a boiling hot day.
"It's not so much something that I've been working on the practice court that's made my game improve," Isner said. "It's as simple as confidence. And just like anybody else, I play my best when I'm confident, I move my best when I'm confident. I'm not the fastest guy in the world, but I feel like I'm been moving well this week and that comes from having a clear mind out there and making the right decisions on the court.
"I've been waiting on this feeling for about five months and now that I've got it, I don't want to lose it."
Fish was solid in his semifinal match. While he was able hold his serve every time, Fish was also able to break Harrison three times during the two-set victory -- enough of an opening to put away the 19-year-old who is also the first American teenager since Sam Querry in 2007 to make an appearance in a semifinal.
Fish broke Harrison right out of the gate to take a 2-1 lead and then broke again at 4-2 to pull ahead 5-2 en route to winning the first set 6-2.
In the second set, Fish once again broke Harrison on his first serve and maintained that advantage until Fish served out to take the deciding set 6-4 for the match and a rematch with Isner.
"I came in playing well, I came in fit last year and I came in on a roll," said Fish of his success at the ATC in 2010 and this year. "I had never won two tournaments in a row last year and I felt like I was a different player than in years past. But I had yet to prove it and that was sort of the start of my run to the top 10 and a one my goals.
"This year, putting yourself in position as the top seed, I'm certainly playing well and got a good draw and here we are."
Meanwhile, Harrison can take a lot from his trip to the semifinals and has a good chance of moving into the top 100 with his showing in Atlanta.
"Obviously, it's a great accomplishment and I'm excited and proud to be here," Harrison said. "It was disappointing to go out, but hopefully it's the first of many semifinals that I'll be in and I look forward to getting that opportunity."
The mid-afternoon matchup should interesting enough to see if endurance plays a factor with today's forecast for the temperature and humidity to be high again.
Fish has yet to drop a set in his three matches during the tournament, never losing more than four games in a set.
Meanwhile, Isner has been pushed to three sets in two of his three matches -- including three tie breaks and another two sets than were 7-5.
Fish owns a 2-1 advantage in head-to-head meetings with Isner.
The first half of today's 12:30 p.m. doubles final was set when American Alex Bogomolov Jr. and Australian Matthew Ebden teamed up to beat Lithuania's Richard Berankis and Malisse 6-1, 7-6 (3).
Bogomolov Jr. and Ebden will take on the winner of last night's second semifinal featuring Germany's Matthias Bachinger and Frank Moser against Great Britain's Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins.
Notes: The temperature at the beginning of the Isner-Muller 1 p.m. match was 89 degrees with humidity over 50 percent, which made it feel like 98. But with the hard court surface and the RCS Stadium Court in a bowl setting, it felt even hotter with very little wind and cloud cover to help cool things down. ... The singles final will be an all-American matchup with Fish and Isner -- the first time since last year's ATC that two USA players have met for a singles championship. ... TV coverage continues today with the singles final live on ESPN2 at 3 p.m., followed by a tape delay of the doubles final on Tennis Channel at 10 p.m.