For the second week in a row, Rafa Nadal will play a hard court final against a tall, big-serving local favourite. Last weekend, the world number three beat Milos Raonic to win the Rogers Cup in Montreal. On Sunday afternoon, he’ll take on American John Isner for the chance to win the 26th Masters title of his career and enter the US Open as the hottest of favourites.
The Spaniard earned his spot in the showpiece match by beating Tomas Berdych for the 15th. In a straight sets win that lasted over two hours, Nadal overcame some impressive resistance from the sixth seed, especially in the second set. After a wayward volley cost him the opener, Berdych began to play much more aggressively, breaking Nadal to move ahead 4-2. He looked to be playing well enough to take the match into a deciding set, but the King of Clay raised his level and broke back. In the ensuring tie-break, he held onto a mini-break lead, and set up three match points with a trademark searing crosscourt forehand. The 7-5, 7-6(4) triumph was completed when Berdych hit a forehand long.
Despite the second set lull and a higher than usual count of six double faults, Nadal said he was pleased with his performance on Saturday.
“I think I played a very good match this afternoon against a very good opponent. I finished the match playing aggressive with the forehand, with the backhand; it’s great.”
Like Raonic in Canada, John Isner had to get past Juan Martin Del Potro on home turf. The odds were against the American, who had lost all four of his previous meetings with the Del Potro, including the Washington final last month. The Argentine was on the cusp of a fifth victory when he won the first set tie-break and had a match point at 5-3, 40-30 in the second, but he double faulted to give Isner some breathing space.
The 6’10” Floridian, roared on by the partisan crowd, duly broke back and forced a tie-break, and that’s where the momentum swung decisively. Fist-pumping and yelling encouragement all the way, Isner finally took it 11-9 after letting five set points slip from his grasp. He continued to play aggressively in the decider, and a deflated Del Potro had little fight left. Isner’s 6-7(5), 7-6(9), 6-3 win was every bit as impressive as his three-set quarter-final defeat of Novak Djokovic.
“I feel like this tournament is where I’m really starting to put it all together,” he said after the two hour, 48 minute battle. “To beat three top ten guys in a row, I’ve been playing well in all facets of my game.”
Isner will have to play even better if he is to stare down the man who remains unbeaten on hard courts this year. Nadal leads his head-to-head with Isner 3-0, and is fully aware of the threat he poses. The Matador will aim to do what he does best: wear down his opponent with a relentless barrage of heavy spins and sharp angles. He’ll try to demoralise Isner by making as many returns as possible, and use his own lefty serve to draw the giant-killer out of court.
Isner’s best chance is to hold serve as easily as possible and look for even the smallest openings during Nadal’s service games. He has been returning much better this week than at any time during the last year, and with the wins over Djokovic and Del Potro he’ll also be feeling more confident than ever. But how much have those marathon encounters taken out of him? Combined with the fact that this his fourth consecutive week of competition, Isner’s long legs must be paying the price of success, and Nadal is the last person a fatigued player wants to face. We can expect Isner to hold firm in a closely fought first set that will probably go to a tie-break, but after that a determined, energetic Nadal will coast to victory.