Isner slowed by Berdych in Paris
PARIS -- Increasingly, the sport of tennis is growing -- and not just in popularity.
Length and breadth is extremely useful in the finite space of a court that features 2,106 square feet. It creates more advantageous angles, particularly on the serve, a simple function of geometry. Today's players with their size and speed and equipment technology have shrunk the court considerably.
Consider the bottom half of Sunday's men's draw: The shortest of the eight men in action? That would be 6-foot-1 Roger Federer. He compensates, even at the venerable age of 32, with still-breathtaking movement.
This is the essential tradeoff in today's game. No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Novak Djokovic are 6-1 and 6-2, respectively, but they are considered to be the best movers. The taller the player -- Andy Murray is 6-3, Milos Raonic 6-5, Juan Martin del Potro 6-6 and Kevin Anderson 6-8 -- the more movement-challenged they are.
The 6-10, 238-pound John Isner is in another area code entirely.
His length is extraordinary; a few years ago the Hawk-Eye folks discovered that while serving, he typically made contact with the ball more than 11 feet above the court. He's almost always among the ATP World Tour leaders in aces per match. Not only is his serve startlingly swift, but because it comes from such a sharp angle, the bounce is higher. Isner's opponents are usually making contact with his serve at a height around their eyes.
Note: Don't try that at home.
We mention all of this because Isner won his first three matches here at Roland Garros, his best effort ever. Sunday, he was looking to achieve something remarkable. Up against No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych, Isner was trying to become the first American man to reach the French Open quarterfinals since Andre Agassi some 11 years ago. Through three victories, Isner's length and power helped minimize his lack of mobility.
On Sunday, he ran into a 6-5, 200-pound man who serves nearly as well -- and moves far better. That was the difference in Berdych's 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over Isner, which advanced him to the quarterfinals.
"Whilst it's not a prerequisite, I think there are certain advantages to size," said Darren Cahill, who coached Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt to the No. 1 ranking. "But with technology, training, more information, recovery, everyone is getting smarter in the sporting world, not just tennis. So the advantages of having a guy over 6-foot-2 who can move incredibly well, that's flexible and has natural power gives you certain advantages in a game like tennis, there's no question about it.
"Especially on the serve, but you have to be able to back that up with a lot of different things. So yeah, a guy who is over 6-2 who is a great athlete, yeah, that's a great start."
Berydch broke Isner in the first game of both the first and second set and the third game of the third.
"That's something which really helps through all the match, especially with a guy like John," Berdych explained later. "He likes to stay as close as possible, serving well. I think it's a good thing to avoid playing the tiebreaks with him. So that was one of my plans in the beginning, and I'm really glad that it was working pretty good."
In truth, Isner looking a little logy. Eight of his previous 11 sets ended with tiebreakers, and Friday's third-round match with Tommy Robredo went five sets and 3 hours, 38 minutes.
"It was colder than I expected," Isner said. "I was just a little slow from the start."
Berdych is back in the quarters here for the second time; in 2010, he reached the semifinals before falling to Robin Soderling. Berdych is an accomplished, all-around player who has been to the semifinals of all four majors.
"I think you're watching a match played on clay," Cahill said. "One guy is from the Czech Republic and grew up on this surface and one guys is from the United States where the surface is second nature to him. So it's a learning process [for Isner]. So I think if you see this match on a hard court, you see a different thing. Whilst Tomas does move around the court incredibly well, the differences in movement on hard court are much smaller than what you see on clay."
Isner acknowledged Berdych's superior range of motion.
"He does a lot of things very well," Isner said. "Everything. He's very solid and moves very well for his size. Strong guy. I mean, it helped him out a lot.
"He was a lot better than me today, and that's really all it was to that match out there."