Sunday, August 9, 2015

2015 CITI OPEN FINAL: NISHIKORI V ISNER - BLOW BY BLOW

After a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, the audience, subdued perhaps by the heat, were lifted into the proper level of anticipation for a final that promises to be tight and enthralling. Wayne Bryan, one of the best things to happen to the Citi Open, brought his enthusiasm and energy to the proceedings by hitting balls into the crowd before the match. 

Isner is introduced first to an enormous ovation, as "Bad to the Bone" plays on the stadium speakers. Nishikori also receives a good ovation.  Isner comes out of his chair first, all smiles, bouncing up and down, and shaking hands. Nishikori saunters onto the court in no particular hurry, as is his wont.  Although Nishikori has the better pedigree, this being his 3rd final in DC, Isner appears to be the more relaxed player. I noticed that he humbly moved into the court to retrieve a ball during the warm up, while Nishikori calmly waited for it to be retrieved for him, though the ball was at least 5 feet closer to him than Isner's. 


Nerves?  Tension?  Habit?

Isner starts out firing on all cylinders, holding at love with two aces and two winners. Importantly his second serves are well overt 100mph, which seemed to be the tipping point for Cilic yesterday. Nishikori's first two serves are tame by comparison, but no less effective, hitting service winners and one cross court forehand winner from the center of the court.  Isner then follows up with another workmanlike hold before the first changeover.  His 1-2 combination is working, and will be key to his chances today if Nishikori returns the way we know he can and should - 
Isner is up 2-1.

Nishikori makes a nervous error on his first 1-2 combination, on a forehand error from the center of the court but recovers well with two service winners.  Isner put the pressure on with a huge inside out forehand return for 30-30, followed by inside-out forehand error.  Nishikori then gets to ad in with two forced errors in the rally to Isner's forehand.  Isner appears committed to applying maximum pressure on the return of serve.  But Nishikori draws first blood with a forehand return at his feet in the first point at 2-2.  Isner responds with two aces up the T, before Nishikori grabs a bite of a poorly placed serve wide at 30-15, before belting a cross court backhand winner to get his first break point.  Isner kicks it high on a second serve hit at 94mph, handling the break point, but Nishikori earns another with his feet as Isner dumps as forehand volley in the net after bossing him in the rally.  Isner saves again with an ace up the T again to earn a third deuce. Two huge serves later he holds for a 3-2 lead.

Nishikori hits an 82mph second serve which Isner jumps on to take the first point, but he runs Isner ragged on the next point, which elicits return errors in the subsequent two points to get to 40-15 - Isner looks really out of breath.  On game point he pulls Isner wide, then scores an easy 1-2 combination with a cross court backhand winner to hold.  Isner then gets a service winner, then loses the second point after Nishikori chips the second serve kicked wide in the ad court for 40-15. Nishikori then chases the wide serve in the deuce court with a Jimmy Connors like stretch return on the two hander, before eliciting a backhand error in the rally. Isner holds with a service winner and leads 4-3.

With a long rally in the first point again elcits a return error in the second for a 30-0 lead. He then turns the screws with a drop shot, and elicits a return error to win the game. Isner then gets to 30-0 after Nishikori misses a backhand pass. A return winner for 30-15 is followed by a kick serve to the backhand, but Nishikori puts pressure with another great forehand return. Under duress Isner hits a 113 second serve, and after a heavy inside out forehand approach Isner hits a drop volley winner to hold for 5-4.

Scoreboard pressure now on Nishikori, who ropes a backhand cross court with both feet in the air eliciting a backhand error. Nishikori then tries a forehand drop shot but misses the cross court passe before Isner takes a big cut in the rally to get to 15-30, then a big inside out forehand to get to double set point off of a 76mph second serve. He then takes the set with a solid forehand return up the line. The crowd erupts as he gestures towards his box.

One has the feeling that the return of serve, particularly the second serve return, will determine this match. Isner has put only one second serve under 100, which was a huge kicker, but Nishikori, under pressure dropped below the 90's several times which costs him the set. 

Nishikori starts the second with a huge cross court forehand, then another which rushes Isner into an error. He then hits a two handed half volley winner that clipped the net and a service winners to get to 30-30. Nishikori makes a long rally which Isner pushes a backhand long before acing. At deuce Nishikori for the third time belts a third forehand at Isner's feet. On break point he hits an ace wide that's challenged and overturned. He pushes a forehand wide and wastes a challenge - with his serve he wants as many of those in his pocket as he can get. 

Nishikori then consolidates with a jeu Blanche, including a first successful net approach off another great cross court backhand. Isner gets to 40-0 with his serve, but Nishikori puts him under pressure with a two good passes.  Isner then holds for 1-2. Clearly Isner's strategy is to unload even from the center of the court at the first opportunity. The idea is to put the result on his racquet win or lose.  He then calls for the trainer on the changeover to work on his right shoulder and the area between the shoulder and the neck. That appears to be an issue of fatigue.

Nishikori comes out before time is called to get loose, but still floats a forehand long on the first point. After a long rally, Nishikori pushes a backhand up the line wide to bring up 0-30. In the next three points Nishikori targets Isner's backhand, until he pushes him wide enough to open up the deuce court. Isner chubs a forehand wide on a 116mph body serve. Isner then hits three service winners and an ace to hold for 2-3.

The CMO of Citi is an Irishman who's father played Laver at the oldest club in the UK, which held the first women's tournament.

Nishikori starts out serving two aces in a row, followed by a service winner to get to 40-0. The first double fault of the match suggests nerves for Nishikori, but he holds with a forehand winner from the center of the court. It bears noting that the match is at least half over at the hour mark with Nishikori up 4-2. Both players grab a drink illegally during the ball change. Isner is still serving above 80% first serves, despite going down a break in the second. Nishikori is actually serving better than Isner winning 73% serve points to Isner's 67%, also returning better with 33% to Isner's 27%.

Nishikori serves his way to yet another jeu Blanche, and Isner's follows with 3 service winners. He does not appear to be spending much energy on the return, but on his serve he is resolute and holds to force Nishikori to serve it out.

This would be Isner's first 500 level win if he can pull it off.  The crowd raise their level of support to help him get there, but King Kei demands silence with a second serve ace followed by an Isner unforced error off the frame. Nishikori then belies his nerves when he hits his second double fault of the match before dumping in a 78mph second serve then an error. A good inside out forehand in the next point elicits an error in the net, but Isner belts a return to bring up deuce. Nishikori is down to 46% first serves this set. Nishikori holds after Isner hits it wide in the rally - in a Freudian slip he swipes away the mark on a close ball, though Isner doesn't challenge.

Isner is out of his seat early, but still starts with his first double fault of the match. He then earns the hold with 4 first serves in the high 120s/ low 130s range. Nishikori starts with a good serve on the first point, but Isner's focus has in erased palpably. He gestures to his box after eliciting an error off a low slice, then comes over a backhand return and polishes off a forehand volley winner and gestures again. Kei pulls a one two combination with a backhand cross court winner and an Isner makes an error for 1-1. Nishikori then hits a sliding backhand pass after an amazing return from the forehand. After an Isner ace, Nishikori belts another return at Isner's feet, eliciting an error, then another - this one a backhand to darn two break points. The break is complete when Nishikori frames a backhand return 6 inches inside the baseline which Isner jokingly tried to wave out before he realized it was going to land in. He hit a solid overhead, but from the baseline which Nishikori belted right back at his feet.

Nishikori hits a service winner, a backhand winner up the line then an inside out winner to consolidate the hold. Isner appears to be tired and the crowd impel him to keep his foot on the gas, with rhythmic claps of encouragement. Isner obliges with a service winner and a forced error, the another service winner on a wide serve in the deuce court. Isner finishes off the love hold with a 1-2 combination, fished with a cross court forehand winner.

Nishikori serves at 3-2, after massaging his thighs with ice packs during the changeover. That familiar subdued gait belies his concentration - he'll need it to deal with the scoreboard pressure. It a long way to go to consolidate a hold in the second service game. Nishikori elicits an error, the. Executes a leaping forehand winner up the line. Another forced error and a service winner consolidates the hold. Isner is now really facing scoreboard pressure now - a break would be fatal, as his fatigue is showing now piling up the unforced and forced errors. Isner holds when Nishikori nets a backhand slice approach after yet another scintillating return - he's making it look routine at this point.

Up 4-3, Nishikori can surely see the finish line, but he must concentrate - he starts with a 1-2 combination forehand winner to the ad court from the center of the court, and follows with a forced error. Isner then panicks and blast a second serve backhand return 6 feet wide (inside out). Isner gets his frustrations out with another wide serve in the deuce court followed by a massive inside out forehand winner. He follows up with two service winners to take the game and force Nishikori to serve it out.

Here is where Nishikori has been the shakiest all week. When serving under duress. The crowd implores Isner to prolong the match with supportive cheers, as a Georgia fan unfurls a banner in his view. Nishikori responds with another 1-2, then an irresistible backhand up the line that clips the baseline. A forces error sets up triple championship point which Nishikori takes with aplomb, tow forehands hit so well that Isner's dying resistance is put down with a backhand volley that Nishikori hits with his back to the court and exalts with relief at his victory. 

It's been a long week, with three three set come back wins, including two in succession over two of the biggest serves in tennis. Otsukare sama deshita!
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