In what is believed to be the “tallest championship match” in ATP history, John Isner will take on Kevin Anderson on Sunday in the BB&T Atlanta Open at Atlantic Station.
Isner is 6 feet, 10 inches tall and Anderson is 6-8.
Isner, the top seed, used his strength to overcome Lleyton Hewitt and his strength in a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5) victory in Saturday’s first semifinal. Kevin Anderson, the second seed, defeated Ryan Harrison 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the other semifinal.
Isner, a former University of Georgia standout, fired 21 aces and used an improving forehand to reach the Atlanta Open finals for the third time in the past four years. He also improved to 24-6 in tiebreakers, the most wins on the ATP World Tour this year.
But beating Hewitt wasn’t easy for Isner.
Isner had to overcome Hewitt’s ability to be in the right place at the right time to return serves. Hewitt rode that strength to bring a 4-1 head-to-head record into Saturday’s match, including a three-set win two weeks ago in the semifinals in Newport, R.I. Isner said that Hewitt stands near the baseline, refuses to back up, and absorbs 140 mph serves.
“I knew that if I didn’t hit my spot, the ball was coming back,” Isner said.
It appeared that Hewitt had found his return groove in the final two sets against Isner, who fired 10 aces in the first set, but saw that total drop to single-digits in each of the next sets.
Hewitt, who declined to be interviewed until after his doubles match Saturday night, broke Isner twice to take the second set and had triple break point tied 3-3 in the third set. But Isner rallied with three serves that Hewitt failed to return to reach 40-all. Isner took the lead with a backhand into the corner off a weak lob by Hewitt. Isner finished the game with another big serve that Hewitt couldn’t return to take a 4-3 lead.
“That was a huge game, massive game,” Isner said.
Hewitt wasted another chance to break Isner on his next service game at 30-40. Isner began the escape with a big second serve that led to a forehand winner for deuce. He followed that win an ace, his 15th of the match and first in the third set. He sealed the game and a 5-4 lead in the set when Hewitt failed to return serve.
Before that ace, Isner had gone five service games without the easy putaway on serve. He began to find his range again, putting away four aces on his next service game to take a 6-5 lead.
Hewitt held serve to force the tiebreaker.
With Isner leading 3-0, Hewitt rallied to take four of the next five points to tie it at 4. Isner responded with his 21st ace to take a 5-4 lead. Hewitt took the next point with an easy winner at the net.
Isner took a 6-5 lead and reached match point with a sliced backhand volley winner. It was a big shot in a big moment because Isner had been burned coming to the net so many times in the match, either by Hewitt hitting cross-court winners or by his own mis-hits.
Isner said he knew that Hewitt wasn’t going to give away the point with a loose shot. He also knew that he was a little tired and didn’t want to expend any more energy in the rally with his serve coming up. So he decided to be aggressive.
“I just came to the net and hit a fantastic volley,” he said. He finished the match with a serve that Hewitt mis-hit.
Isner will look to win his seventh career title and second this year after taking the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship in Houston in April. Anderson, a native of South Africa, will look to win his third title.
Anderson had little trouble with Harrison, firing 14 aces and saving five break points.
Isner is 5-3 as a professional against Anderson. They haven’t met in a final as pros. But their rivalry goes back to Isner’s college days in Athens and Anderson’s at Illinois when they first played in 2005.
Anderson is having arguably the best year of his career. He is a career-high No. 21 in the rankings — a spot ahead of Isner — on the strength of a 32-13 record. This will be his third final this year, both resulting in losses.
“Every match I’ve played, I try to prepare and be really clear as to what I’m trying to do and not think too much more than that,” he said.
Fans should expect big serves with few chances to break when the two giants meet on Sunday. Isner has 71 aces, while Anderson has fired 42.
“My third final here, I would certainly love to win it, but I’m not putting any more pressure on myself,” Isner said.