Racket Science: Isner and failed five-setters

Whoever first observed that tennis isn’t “rocket science” had it right. It’s racket science, a slightly less daunting discipline, but one that has its own special challenges, rewards and revelations. So let’s delve right into some of the more striking numbers and details generated by the sport last week and see where the inquiry takes us.

John Is-nervous goes down in five … Again: It was ugly. You all saw it. John Isner of the U.S. lost the second rubber of the weekend’s Davis Cup tie with Great Britain. It was the pivotal point in the second consecutive World Group first-round win by the British over Team USA. Isner, the ATP No. 20, was upset by 27-year-old No. 111 James Ward in a match that lasted nearly five hours, 6-7 (4), 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 15-13.

This was Isner’s fifth five-set Davis Cup match, and he hasn’t won any of them. He’s lost to Novak Djokovic at the upper end of the rankings, Paul Capdeville of Chile (No. 165) down in the netherworld and Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil and Nicolas Almagro of Spain in between. Unfortunately for the 6-foot-10 North Carolinian, his overall career record in five-set matches isn’t a great deal better. His winning percentage is 27.7 percent (5-13).

It all began well enough; after losing his first five-setter as a pro to Juan Ignacio Chela, Isner created a sensation with a huge five-set win over Andy Roddick at the 2009 US Open. He was 2-1 in his next three tries but then hit the five-set wall. He won just one five-setter in 10 tries between January of 2011 and that loss to Capdeville in the U.S.-Chile World Group first-round tie in February of 2013.

Six of Isner’s five-set epics went into “overtime” (beyond 13 games in the final set). His win over Roddick at Flushing Meadows might have gone long, too, except they play a fifth-set tiebreaker at the American major.

The bright spot in this tale of woe is that Isner won the match that has probably earned him a secure place in the record books in perpetuity. In 2010, Isner defeated Frenchman Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon 6–4, 3–6, 6–7 (7), 7–6 (3), 70–68.

The dark fortnight for the Big Four: With the Indian Wells Masters 1000 upon us, let’s remember that the Big Four -- Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray -- have won 20 of the past 23 Masters 1000 titles when the entire quartet has been represented in the draw.

Curiously, two of the three exceptions to that dominance were recorded in the span of just two weeks. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Paris Masters in 2008, after which the dry spell for contenders lasted about 15 months. Then came Indian Wells and Miami in 2010. None of Big Four survived to contest either final, but one outsider appeared in both. That was Andy Roddick, who lost the 2010 Indian Wells final to Ivan Ljubicic, then bounced back to defeat Tomas Berdych in the Miami final.

A sting for the King of Clay: On March 1, Rafael Nadal won the 46th clay-court title of his career at Buenos Aires, seemingly tying the record held by Guillermo Vilas. But before the day was out, the ATP and ITF acknowledged that three of Vilas’ recorded hard-court tournament wins actually took place on clay: Toronto in 1974 and 1976 and Virginia Beach in 1977.

Thus, Nadal still trails Vilas by three clay-court titles. Some Nadal fans have made snide references to the quality of the Virginia Beach tournament and to its small field (16). They might want to think again. The entries included Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis. And with his first-round bye at Buenos Aires, Nadal was playing in a 16-man draw too, right?