NEW YORK -- In the most anticipated match of an otherwise drama-free Day 4, John Isner overcame a surprising lack of crowd support to defeat Gael Monfils 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (4) in the second round of the U.S. Open on Thursday night.
Isner looked well on his way to a straight-sets win after playing aggressively to win the first two sets in just one hour and 11 minutes. While the crowd voiced its support for the dynamic and entertaining Frenchman through the first two sets, it grew even more vocal in the third as Monfils battled back to take the set.
"I always love playing in New York and I always had a good crowd here and many fans," Monfils said. "Today they were behind me and they were very helpful for me to hang around and grab that third set. It was an amazing atmosphere out there and I am very thankful for them today."
Monfils said he's never received that level of support outside the French Open.
"Here it's the most after Paris," he said. "I always say here is my second home."
A New York crowd backing a Frenchman against the top-ranked American? As the chants of "Mon-fils! Mon-Fils! Mon-fils" rang between games and sometimes even between points, Isner admitted that he grew frustrated.
"I was a little bit disappointed in that, actually," Isner said. "Not going to sugar-coat it. It was certainly, if I was playing him in France, it certainly wouldn't be like that."
Isner wasn't the only one caught off guard by an American crowd backing a foreign player on U.S. soil.
Said Isner: "He's a fun‑loving guy and an exciting guy to watch no matter where he is playing, but honestly, it was a little bit surprising. I know the New York fans, they like to see long matches and fifth sets and whatnot, but it's not like there was no one cheering for me.
"It was a great atmosphere, it was a lot of fun, I'm not saying it wasn't. I played a similar match when I played Tommy Haas in Paris. I had about five people cheering for me, and those were the five people in my box. So the French people were cheering for the German there," he said with a laugh.
It's easy for Isner to laugh about it after walking away with the win, but overwhelming support for Monfils as the match grew tighter clearly got under his skin. After he took a long bathroom break to change his clothes after losing the third set, Isner returned to the court with the Monfils chants still rolling around the stadium. When Isner won a point, the crowd offered polite applause. When Monfils won a point, it erupted. As the momentum began to swing, Isner grew more passive and Monfils was able to wrestle back the momentum.
As Monfils threw his body around the court, engaged with the crowd and started bobbing his head to the sound of the crowd chanting his name, Isner buckled down.
"That's sort of how he is," Isner said. "It's not to say he's not a great competitor. He enjoys atmospheres more than anyone else in the world. He wants to soak it up and play to the crowd more than anyone, really. That's just how he is.
"For me, I didn't want to get involved in a little hit‑and‑giggle thing with him and try and get going back and forth. I just wanted to stay focused. I didn't want it to be too friendly out there even though he's a very good friend of mine."
With Monfils serving from behind in the fourth set, Isner was able to get to 0-30 at 4-5 and 5-6 but couldn't earn a match point. When Monfils finally held serve to force a tiebreak, Isner found a way to win by hitting two of his best serves -- both coming in at more than 135 mph -- coupled by perhaps the best inside-out forehand he hit all night to earn match point. He celebrated by pointing to the fans and telling them to get behind him, and, in an odd twist, they did. As if the crowd needed to re-prove its fickle nature, chants of "U-S-A" finally rang out for the first time.
When Monfils sent a forehand passing shot into the net on match point, Isner dropped his racket and did his "Superman" celebration, an ode to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. The two friends shared a hug at the net.
"He was just better than me," Monfils said. "I have no [problem] to admit that. I just [gave] everything I had and he was just better than me today and we played on a nice court, a nice atmosphere, So thanks, John, good luck for the rest [of the tournament]." Isner plays Philipp Kohlschreiber, who beat him in five sets here last year, on Saturday.