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Indian Wells shows Isner's time is now, while WTA faces trying times

One of the best and wittiest of all sports broadcasters, Hank Greenwald, was working an NBA game with the legendary Bill King in the 1970s when Rick Barry stepped to the free-throw line. The Warriors were down by two points with about a second left on the clock.

"Well, no margin for error here," said King. "He has to make these."

Greenwald paused for a moment. "Well, he doesn't have to. It would be nice ..."

That exchange came to mind recently as a number of analysts pinpointed 2012 as the year for Andy Murray to win a major. Better win it now, they said, or it may never happen.

I'm not sure that's true. It might be more instructive to direct such urgency toward John Isner.

Murray is just 24 years old, supremely limber and spry, still growing into his maturity both physically and emotionally. For Isner, who turns 27 next month, the time for him to make his mark in tennis is now, over the next couple of years. In a delightfully refreshing development, he seems up to the task.

It was discouraging for fans of American men's tennis to see Isner lose to the great Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final on Sunday, but that's not the match people will take away from the tournament. It won't be the latest installment of Federer-Nadal, either. Indian Wells was defined by Isner's brilliantly composed victory over Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, before the rainstorms and chilly weather changed the mood and tenor of the event.

As much as we all cherish the presence of Federer and Nadal, and their everlasting impact on the sport, Djokovic is the reigning king of men's tennis. He's the target, the master, coming off one of the most historically significant years of all time. To beat Djokovic these days is to reach the heights -- and make no mistake, Djokovic played superbly through most of that Isner match. He came up with shots of pure instinct and ingenuity, under pressure, that called to mind his wondrous feats of 2011.

Isner showed such resolve in pulling out that 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) win, it appeared to have signaled an earth-shaking impact on the U.S. hierarchy. The days of Andy Roddick's dominance are long gone, and the 30-year-old Mardy Fish seems to be entering a period of self-doubt, admitting after a desultory straight-set loss to Matthew Ebden that his big concern is competing. "To walk off court knowing I tried as hard as I could. I think I've lost that a little bit. I'm just in sort of a lull, and I'm going to try to get out of it as fast as I can."

Fish isn't anywhere near retirement, and even Roddick's detractors recognize his desire and competitive spirit. But if you're heading into a crucial Davis Cup singles against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Gael Monfils in the upcoming tie against France, who's your best call? It has to be Isner right now. Nobody in the sport wants to be anywhere near this guy in a draw.

Isner's serve has been the equivalent of Greek mythology for several years now, but it was inspiring to watch him stand in against Djokovic, time after time, and unload a first-serve rocket to the perfect spot. The man exudes confidence right now, befitting his rise to the No. 10 ranking, and as his inside-out forehand becomes one of the most dangerous weapons on Tour, he has vastly improved his backhand, volleys and service returns.

There are times when he still looks a bit gangly, at 6-foot-9, and near the edge of exhaustion after a few hard-fought rallies. But that's the point: Isner has reached the stage of his physical peak. As he draws closer to 30, he won't be getting any quicker or establishing a lower center of gravity. It has taken him nearly a decade, dating to his collegiate days at Georgia, to defy the laws of tennis and craft a world-class game. His window of opportunity -- in Davis Cup, world rankings and majors -- has arrived. There will be no stage-two celebration of longevity, along the lines of Andre Agassi or Jimmy Connors, for this redwood tree of an athlete.

Isner's victory over Djokovic was the latest installment in a volume of epic performances in the men's game, enjoying a full-blown renaissance on the global scale. It's a shame we can't say the same about the women, and for those concerned about the appeal of the WTA Tour, Indian Wells provided plenty of discouraging evidence.

The event fought a losing battle from the start, with so many players felled by a rapidly spreading virus, but there were early signs of life: Victoria Azarenka's gritty comeback against Mona Barthel, Christina McHale's inspired upset of Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic's straight-set thrashing of Caroline Wozniacki, and Jamie Hampton's victories over Jelena Jankovic and Jarmila Gajdosova.

Up in the stands, though, were the signs of apathy. Watching from home, I didn't see a big, enthusiastic crowd for any women's match. The place was depressingly empty for both semifinals, and it couldn't have been more than half-filled for the start of the Azarenka-Maria Sharapova final.

There were precious few hints of drama from the quarterfinals on, but more significantly, much of the play was downright depressing. Despite the prospect of a genuinely heated rivalry, Agnieszka Radwanska didn't belong on the same court as Azarenka (6-0, 6-2). Sharapova looks as if she won't have an answer against Azarenka for the rest of her career. And Ivanovic's tepid exit was a blight on the spirit of athletic competition.

Right up to the semifinals, Ivanovic's run had been a delight to insiders and her inner circle. The sturdy Marion Bartoli was no match for her (6-1, 6-4) in the quarters. It seemed that a career revival was at hand. Then, with Sharapova preparing to serve at 5-4 in the first set, Ivanovic walked off the court -- no sign of injury, or even a limp -- and created a very annoying eight-minute break.

Sharapova wasn't thrilled -- she's not the type to pull stunts like this, even if she's in tremendous pain -- and you could hear a welcome dash of skepticism in the ABC commentary by Chris Fowler and Mary Joe Fernandez. The word "gamesmanship" was mentioned. There's no doubt that Ivanovic was in some pain, but it was disclosed Monday that her injury was nothing more than inflammation below her left hip.

Back on the court, Ivanovic got a stern bit of nationally televised coaching from Nigel Sears. Credit the man for a marvelous poker face; he never once changed expression. But he had to be exasperated to be in charge of this debacle, and at one point he told Ivanovic, "Your tennis is fine." Which it was -- certainly enough to continue blasting those world-class forehands in Sharapova's direction. But no, after a few more points, a teary eyed Ivanovic cashed it in.

Throughout the sporting landscape, athletes compete through searing discomfort. They're giving it a shot despite broken limbs, severe illness or multiple concussions. Is it a smart way to go? Not necessarily, but this is how the great ones are measured. They'd rather have stayed home than appear wimpy or ready to quit at a moment's notice. Tennis, with its generous allowances for medical breaks, makes it easy for fans to separate the courageous from the weak.

So it wasn't a great weekend for the women's game, and since the WTA has shown no inclination to curb the shrieking problem that reflects so badly on the sport, this latest reminder: Azarenka-Sharapova is a nightmare final for many thousands of fans, now and forever.

Better days lie ahead, one would hope, in Miami.

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