Friday night in Acapulco, John Isner came to play…but so did Taylor Fritz. With Thursday night’s horrendous second set against Tommy Paul behind him, Isner appeared determined to submit Fritz, and he did...at least for a while. He came out firing serves, focused on his return games, and jumped out to a very quick one set lead. It’s as easy as pie when you have the weapons that Isner has. He won 12 of 16 points played on his first serve, collecting 8 aces, he broke serve two out of the four chances he got, and he pocketed the first set 6-2 in about 40 minutes. By contrast, Fritz got in only half of his first serves (13 of 26) and was able to win only 5 points on his second service. Isner was not only the better player during that first set, he was dominant.
And then the wheels came off the bus.
Isner raced out to a 4-2 second set lead, on the back of winning all of the points played on his first serve (8 for 8), collecting two more aces in those first three games he served, and collecting a single break of serve. After 14 games, the tall American was only eight points away from winning this match. But just as it appeared that the outcome of this match was a foregone conclusion, Isner let his guard down, and it couldn’t have been more destructive. After holding his serve, the 6’4” Fritz broke serve to tie the set up at 4 all, and the stage was set for excitement that most of the crowd had never seen before. Fritz held serve in the ninth game to take a 5-4 lead and put pressure on the Georgia grad. Then, with the second set knotted at 5-all, Fritz played a really good game, as he hit his tenth ace of the match to win his sixth game of the set. Somehow Fritz found the resources to hit several winners off of Isner’s first serves when Fritz was up 6-5, and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, the match was tied at a set apiece.
The third set started almost immediately as neither of these two guys requested a break after the conclusion of the second set. Fritz came out firing the way a man does when he’s confident, and he opened up a 1-0 lead on the back of three tough first serves. Now, seemingly loaded with confidence, Fritz quickly won the first two points on Isner’s serve in the second game of the third set. When Isner stepped back to serve at 30-40 in his first service game of that set, for the first time in the match, they were tied in total points, 64 all. Fritz won the ensuing point, broke serve for a 2-0 lead, and for the first time jumped ahead in total points won, 65-64. The 22-year-old opened the third game with an ace, and all of a sudden the fans noticed Isner’s 6’10” frame stooping. Boy did that say it all! Fritz held, and Isner now served uphill at 0-3 in the third in a match that twenty minutes ago appeared almost over.
The roles had totally reversed, and serving at 4-2 in the third, Fritz seized control. He easily held to go up 5-2, and with one more hold, Fritz would play for the top prize of $372,785. The loser of this match stood to take home $94,995, so along with ranking points, pride, and confidence, there stood a huge valley between what the winner and the loser would walk away with. Isner held and Fritz served for the match. Fritz took the first point, smacked his 14th ace to take a commanding 30-love lead, and the next two points lasted less than 20 seconds total, as the tall Californian saved two terrific serves for when he needed them the most. After 100 minutes, Fritz, the 22-year-old who is married (Raquel Pedraza) with a son (Jordan), evened his personal match record with the top-ranked American at 2-2 and moved into a potentially explosive match with Rafa Nadal for all the marbles.
Ultimately, Fritz won 84 points compared to Isner’s 79. He converted 60% of the break points he had. Isner collected more double faults than Fritz, 7 to 4, and Fritz notched 15 aces against Isner’s 13, a very telling statistic against one of the most consistently excellent servers on Tour. Fritz won more points on his first serve than Isner, 41 to 37, more points on his serve, period (55 to 51) and more points when he returned serve (30 to 28).
And so, it was Rafa time. Last year, this tournament set an attendance record when, over the course of the week, 50,000 fans showed up. Rafa won only one match before he fell to Nick Kyrgios, so very few of those fans came to see the Mallorcan play. But with an opportunity to watch one of the greatest players of our time, or any time, the fans have resurfaced. Since Rafa has put fans in the seats, I must comment on Rafa’s clothes, as I ranted about the kits the men have been wearing in 2020. Rafa is one of the only guys that looks good. This year he’s been wearing bright pink sleeveless shirts with white shorts, coupled with bright pink tennis shoes and heavy white socks. He looks great…almost as good as he plays, and he’s either #1 or #2 in the world in that category.
Nadal put his 12-1 record against Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov on the line in this semifinal clash. Dimitrov, meanwhile, appears to be finding his groove. Dimitrov, who grew up training in South Florida, was ranked as high as #3 in the world, and he’s getting back to that playing level. He exhibits classic strokes, a great demeanor for tennis, and looks smooth and classy when he plays. It’s interesting that, of the four top seeds, only one remains, and only two made it out of the first round. But if true tennis fans appreciate watching excellence, the Bulgarian has given them one more player to love.
Nadal, one of the most tenacious competitors on Tour immediately broke serve to move ahead of Dimitrov, and held on to that break to win the first set 6-3. Although the set was essentially decided quickly because of the early break, the points and games that ensued were very competitive, and it took close to 45 minutes to complete. Rafa fought to rack up four break chances and converted on two. Dimitrov had four of his own but was able to convert only one. That was the difference between the two in the first set. They were separated by only three points out of 59 played.
Dimitrov led off the second set with what appeared to be a newfound priority of getting first serves in. In that first service game, he won all three points in which his first delivery landed in the box. He held serve when he won an additional point off of a second serve, and it became apparent that Dimitrov knew what went wrong in the first set and was determined to change. He raised the level of his game and immediately broke Rafa in his first service game of the second set to take a 2-0 lead. But Rafa immediately broke back to make it 1-2, with his serve up next. Rafa held and then immediately broke back as he took a 3-2 lead. Try as he might, this wasn’t Dimitrov’s night. After Dimitrov had gone up 2-0, Rafa simply ran away with the set and never looked back. The Mallorcan won six games in a row to take the second set 6-2 and the match, 6-3, 6-2.
Nadal now moves into the Finals where he’ll face American Taylor Fritz Saturday evening. If you’re planning to watch the match on The Tennis Channel live, it won’t be played until after 9:00 pm EST. I’d expect Rafa to win the tournament. And again, if Rafa wins here the ATP might have a new #1.