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John Isner Sees Top 10 Hopes Hindered by Tiebreaks

The 2011 ATP World Tour season was undoubtedly one to remember for John Isner: He reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, won two titles over the summer and is coming off his first career Masters semifinal in Paris. There he fell to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a final-set tiebreak after holding three match points.

Ahh, the tiebreak: The method used to determine the winner of a 6-all set at regular ATP events and the U.S. Open provided some forgettable experiences this year for Isner. The 6’9” American, who led the tour in aces and service games won, fell short at more than a few crucial moments over the course of the season, defying the conventional wisdom that ‘breakers always favor the big server.

And as impressive as his year was, could it have been even better—perhaps with a top-10 finish? Let’s take a look at some of the missed opportunities in 2011, aside from the Tsonga match:

Australian Open, Third Round

Marin Cilic d. Isner: 4-6, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-6(2), 9-7
This match-up in the round of 32 pitted two of the game’s biggest servers against one another. Each of them served more than 20 aces, but it was the Croatian who came out on top, rallying from two sets to one down. A win, though, in the fourth-set tiebreak would have enabled Isner to defend his round-of-16 points from the prior year. As it was, his ranking took a minor hit.

Atlanta, Finals

Mardy Fish d. Isner: 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-2
Isner entered the rematch of the previous year’s final on an eight-match winning streak, which included taking the title at the grass-court event in Newport, RI. Isner was at the top of his game and in the second set, found himself with two match points, including one on his serve. However, it wasn’t to be and Fish denied Isner the title for the second year in a row.

Washington, Semifinals

Gael Monfils d. Isner: 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(6)
Despite the tough loss at his prior tournament in Atlanta, Isner’s strong play continued at the Washington event, the place he first made his presence known on the ATP tour in 2007 with a surprise run to the finals. That year he defeated Monfils in the semifinals, but it would be the Frenchman who would exact a bit of payback in 2011. Isner fought off two match points and eventually got one of his own, but Monfils held steady and advanced to the finals.

U.S. Open, Quarterfinals

Andy Murray d. Isner: 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2)
This match presented a complete contrast of styles: One of the game’s biggest servers faced off against one of its most brilliant returners in Murray. Plus, Isner was in completely unfamiliar territory as this was his first career Slam quarterfinal, while Murray was playing in his fourth of the year. Murray came up with crucial breaks in the first two sets to capture them. Isner, though, showed he wasn’t done as he took the third, then garnered break points to serve for the fourth set. Murray staved those off and got the set to a breaker, which he swept through with the loss of two points. That brought Isner’s nine-match winning streak to a halt—as well as his Grand Slam hopes for ‘11.

Those four losses alone cost Isner a title, a final, a Slam semi and fourth-round appearance. But if anything was gained from those defeats—as well as other tiebreak losses at Davis Cup and Masters events—Isner did show resiliency, evidenced by the winning streaks he was able to put together. Perhaps, a little bit more luck under those circumstances could lift him even higher up the rankings.

Or maybe doing away with the tiebreak altogether would be to his advantage? It’s been well-documented how he performs in those conditions.