In the first round of last year's US Open, John Isner came from 2 sets to love down against young gun Frances Tiafoe to celebrate by 3-6 4-6 7-6 6-2 7-6 after 3 hours and 28 minutes, and they had a chance to meet on home soil in the 3rd round of Cincinnati this week.
In another close encounter, Isner prevailed by 7-6 7-5 in an hour and 39 minutes, in what has been a very tight match, with just 2 break points for each player. Better-ranked American saved both and he broke Tiafoe in the best possible moment, in the final game of the match to wrap up a solid win and reach his second Cincinnati quarter-final.
John served at 72% and he kept his second serve safer, opting to take more risks than his rival, who double faulted 5 times and struggled more after missing the first serve. Despite that, Frances stayed right up there with John, facing no break points in his first 11 service games, but he failed to win the most important points in the closing stages of both sets to end on the losing side.
It wasn't the match with too much rhythm or entertaining points, with almost 80% of the points ending in the shortest range of maximum 4 shots. In addition, 45% of the points ended with service winners, keeping the number of break points low and turning almost every good return into a gold.
Isner was the more determined player, scoring more winners and attacking more behind his second serve. They had a similar number of unreturned serves but John was more efficient with the first groundstroke after the initial shot and that gave him the edge in the fair share of points.
Frances won the majority of the longer rallies but he is still to develop better point construction, that could put John into even deeper problems once the rally hit an 8th or 9th shot. In fact, Tiafoe dominated in the mid-range rallies but Isner won 5 out of 9 longest rallies, which wasn't something that Frances should have allowed if he wanted a better result, especially in such a close match.
As we already said, the serve was the dominant factor for both players, as John ended up with 36 service winners and Frances adding another 31. In terms of the winners from the field, John's forehand was the most fearsome weapon, blasting 11 direct points from that wing from 14 in total, while Frances stayed on 9.
Isner made more unforced errors, which was expected, and Tiafoe gained 7 points in that department (16-9) to annul his deficit in winners almost entirely. Nonetheless, the better-ranked player forced 14 errors from the youngster and he stayed on 11, and the double faults also ruined teenager, hitting 5 (two in his final service game of the match) against only 1 from John.
It was 66-49 for John in the shortest points and he built his win around those points, losing the exchanges between 5-8 shots by 15-7. Interestingly, he was getting better as the rally progressed, winning 5 out of 9 longest points, including some in the big moments.
Both players had 3 service winners in their opening service games, which really set the tone for the rest of the encounter, and they were locked up at 3-3 after easy holds. In the 7th game, Frances returned 3 out of 4 John's serves and that made an impact instantly, creating 2 break points with a forehand winner.
Isner fends off the first 1 with a service winner and the second after a 10-stroke rally when Tiafoe had his chances but netted an easy forehand. John closed the game with 2 unreturnable serves, and in the following game, he reached deuce on the return when teenager missed the first shot after the serve.
Still, Frances did bring the game home, leveling the score at 4-4 and sending the pressure to the other side of the court. Isner was 15-30 down on serve in game 11, only to fire up 2 service winners and 1 from forehand to avoid further struggle.
Tiafoe, who didn't face a break point in the entire set, delivered a solid service game to set up the tie break, and it was Isner who opened it in a stronger fashion, making a mini-break in the third point to go 4-1 in front.
Frances came back to 4-4 but John grabbed the last 3 points to take the breaker 7-4 when youngster netted a forehand right after the serve in that 11th point. It was 20-14 for Isner in service winners and also 7-6 in the winners from the field.
On the other hand, he also gathered more mistakes, with 10-4 in unforced, which pretty much erased his advantage in terms of direct points won. They had 8 forced errors each and with such a close numbers, it all came down to the break chances that Tiafoe missed and the final few points of the tie break that John embraced.
Nothing could separate the rivals in the first 6 games of the second set, with 18 service winners in total, but the returners won at least 2 points in 5 out of the next 6 games, to make the things more interesting. John won 9-stroke rally to reach deuce on the return in game 7, only to be denied by 2 service winners from Tiafoe, and in the next game, the teenager had 0-30 on the return, with a golden chance to put Isner's serve in jeopardy.
John was saved by his forehand, hitting 2 winners right after the serve to get out of trouble, and in the end, he held after a 10-shot exchange to make the result even at 4-4. The match was interrupted due to rain at that point and when they came back Frances had to play against 0-30, firing 3 service winners and taking one longer rally to hold and move in front again.
The 11th game proved to be the crucial, as Frances made 2 double faults to hand John the lone break of the match, even though he never faced break points before. Isner took his gift with pleasure, bringing the match home with 4 service winners in game 12 for the place in the quarter-final, and it will be interesting to see when will these two meet again.
In this set, Frances had more service winners, 17-16 but it was 7-3 for John in the winners from the field. Isner cut the number of errors and it was 5-4 for him in the unforced errors department, which couldn't make the difference.
Still, Tiafoe made 6 forced errors, 3 more than Isner, and he also added 3 double faults, 2 in the worst possible moment, to end the match on the losing side.
Point by point result and the number of shots in the rallies: