Monday September 3rd, 2012

Frustrated with himself after being broken, John Isner smashed his racket on a changeover in his loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber. (Reuters)

Another Grand Slam tournament, another crushing five-set loss for John Isner. His vanquisher this time was the No. 19 seed, Philipp Kohlschreiber, who overcame the ninth-seeded Isner 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a third-round match that didn't end until 2:26 a.m Monday, equaling the latest finish in U.S. Open history.

Isner has made a career out of being tennis' "Marathon Man." After all, one of his claims to fame is his epic Wimbledon victory against Nicolas Mahut in 2010 that spanned three days and went 70-68 in the fifth set. The guy has a plaque at the All England Club. Those things don't come easily.

Lately, though, Isner has found himself on the wrong end of these grueling matches, racking up a string of devastating five-set losses at the biggest tournaments of the year.

Sunday's defeat caps a Slam season full of disappointment, one that Isner himself described as "not good at all." It began at the Australian Open, where Feliciano Lopez outlasted Isner 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-7 (0), 6-1 in the third round. Considering their respective rankings at the time -- Lopez was No. 19 while Isner was ranked No. 17 -- the loss was quickly dismissed. After all, Isner had scored a big win over David Nalbandian in the previous round (a five-setter, of course), setting up a gassed performance against Lopez.

Then came a second-round loss to No. 261 Paul Henri Mathieu at the French Open -- a match that went 18-16 in the fifth and ranks as the 10th longest in the Open Era. And then a first-round exit to Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon, losing 7-5 in the fifth. It was an underachieving stretch for Isner, who had arrived on European clay full of confidence after upsetting then-No. 1 Novak Djokovic on his way to the Indian Wells final in March.

Yet by the time Isner got to the U.S. Open he was back on a roll, coming off a Winston-Salem title that included back-to-back victories against top-10 players in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych. When the U.S. Open draw was released and Isner got placed in the soft quarter without a member of the top four -- Rafael Nadal is back in Spain playing golf and rehabilitating a knee injury -- he knew the opportunity to make a deep run in New York was his.

Which is precisely why he cracked against Kohlschreiber. On paper, the stat of the match belongs to the German: He went 3-for-3 on break points, an almost unheard of feat against Isner, who is armed with a serve that helps him save nearly 75 percent of the break points he faces. (Isner converted 2-of-11 break chances.) But lift your eyes from the stat sheet and it was Isner's inability to control his negativity that cost him this match.

After double-faulting to hand over the fourth set to Kohlschreiber, Isner came out in the fifth set only to be broken immediately, thanks to a rare foot-fault call that left him steaming. Serving at deuce in the first game, Isner was called for a foot fault that wiped out an ace. He proceeded to double-fault to give Kohlschreiber his third break point of the match and the German converted. Isner went ballistic, taking his frustration out on umpire Carlos Bernardes and his rackets.

"Who is this guy? How is he going to call a foot fault? Worst call ever," he yelled at Bernardes as he walked to his chair on a subsequent changeover, then sat down and smashed his racket to the ground, incurring a point penalty. It was a rare outburst from the typically even-keeled American, a display of self-awareness as he saw this winnable match slip from his fingers. Isner spent the rest of the set playing like a man who was watching his one big chance slip away and already grieving. As Kohlschreiber bounded around the court and practically exploded out of his shoes with every shot he hit, Isner's leaden legs weighed him down. This was a golden opportunity to make the semifinals of a Slam. Instead, that slot will go to Janko Tipsarevic, Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer or Richard Gasquet, the four men who have progressed to the fourth round.

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