Wednesday April 1st, 2015

Two tight matches with two very different scorelines resulted in split fortunes for Americans at the Miami Open. John Isner scored an upset win over No. 5 seed Milos Raonic, winning 6-7, 7-6, 7-6 to advance to his first ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal in over a year. Venus Williams couldn't hold her great form against No. 12 Carla Suarez Navarro, losing 0-6, 6-1, 7-5. 

Thoughts from the night:

This was an opportunity lost for Venus. With the bottom half of the draw in shambles after a series of early upsets, Venus had a great chance to make her first Premier Mandatory final of the year in Miami. But she came in with a bang and went out with a whimper. Venus was flawless in pocketing the first set 6-0 in just 27 minutes but all went away from her quickly in the second set. The two were into a third set before the match clock even clicked over the hour mark. The final set saw Williams and Suarez Navarro playing their best level at the same time—obviously not the case in the first two sets—and it was Venus who struggled with her game plan, failing to find a balance between being too aggressive and missing or being too passive and letting Suarez Navarro take control. 

Suarez Navarro in the midst of a career-best 12 months: All hail the one-handed backhand. She's up to a career-high ranking at No. 12 and has made the quarterfinals or better at seven of her eight tournaments this year. On Thursday she will play Andrea Petkovic, who beat Karolina Pliskova earlier in the day, with the winner landing in the Top 10 on Monday. She's also No. 5 in the WTA Road To Singapore, which measures the points earned this season, behind only Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Pliskova.

Rafael Nadal loses to Fernando Verdasco in Miami Open third round

​Isner has been a changed man since his brutal Davis Cup loss. The first two months of the season were flat-out bad for Isner. He won just three matches before heading to Glasgow, Scotland for the U.S. Davis Cup team's first round tie against Great Britain. Isner went 0-2 over the weekend, including a disastrous five-set loss—he held a two-sets-to-love lead—to James Ward on Day 1. His coach, Justin Gimelstob, picked him up from LAX and the pair had a heart-to-heart about the state of Isner's game and his mentality as they navigated the L.A. traffic to Indian Wells.

Since then Isner is back to playing more committed, aggressive tennis. He made the fourth round in Indian Wells and played a top-notch match in a straight-set loss to Novak Djokovic. He's followed that up with a straight-set win over No. 9 seed Grigor Dimitrov and now No. 5 seed Raonic. 

The belief is growing for Isner, and you could see it in the second and third set tiebreaks. He looked done and dusted after falling behind 0-3 in the second set tiebreak, but focused in to play steady defense on the baseline and took advantage of a few poor errors from Raonic. After losing a mini-break lead in the third set tiebreak, he again stayed calm and it was Raonic who blinked with the error. 

Maria Sharapova upset by Daria Gavrilova in first match at Miami Open

Next up for Isner is a very different opponent in No. 4 seed Kei Nishikori. It will be the first meeting between the two. Nishikori advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-1, 6-2 win over David Goffin. The win will move Nishikori ahead of Rafael Nadal in the rankings on Monday.

Isner-Raonic matches should come with a warning: By the middle of the second set, the experienced Tennis Channel commentary crew of Mary Carillo, Lindsay Davenport and Paul Annacone fell silent. What commentary or analysis can you really add when two guys are just keeping rallies under five shots and powering down unreturnable serves? Isner fired 41 winners (25 of which were aces) to 31 unforced errors. Raonic hit 42 winners (13 aces) to 31 unforced errors. Raonic got a look at one break point on Isner's serve. Isner got three looks on Raonic's. There were zero breaks of serve. Isner hit just seven winners off the ground.

Writers and fans took to social media to lament the one-note nature of the match:




This isn't necessarily a knock against Isner and Raonic. There's a strong argument to be made that counterpuncher matches like we see between Djokovic and Andy Murray are only more interesting because they feature interminable rallies. Tennis is more compelling when matches feature a contrast of styles. When Isner plays a top returner like Djokovic or Murray, it can be riveting. The same goes for matches like Raonic's big win over Nadal two weeks ago in Indian Wells. 

Let's just hope these two don't lock horns at the French Open, Wimbledon or the Australian Open, none of which have a fifth-set tiebreaker. 

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