On a day of boiling temperatures and jet-stream serves, John Isner saved one of his best for when it was needed most.
With an adopted hometown crowd cheering him on after his days as an All-American at Georgia, Isner launched a 143-mph missile to save the first of two match points in the third set and then held on to knock off Kevin Anderson 6-7 (3), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) and take the BB&T Atlanta Open on Sunday at Atlantic Station. It was his first title at the Atlanta Open in his third appearance in the finals.
“It feels amazing because I have been so close (here),” said Isner, who was twice beaten for the title by Mardy Fish in 2010 and 2011.
Many expected that the match, dubbed the tallest championship in ATP history — Isner is 6 foot 10 and Anderson is 6-8 — would be full of aces and tiebreakers. They combined for 45 aces, with Isner firing 24 to go along with several that Anderson could reach but not control.
It was the first ATP World Tour final since 2011 in which both players hit at least 20 aces. It was also the first final this year to require three tiebreakers and with no breaks of serve.
Isner predictably turned to the serve when he needed it most, like when it was ad-out in the 12th game of the third set. He won the second match point when Anderson hit a backhand long. Anderson failed to capitalize on 11 chances to break Isner. Three of Isner’s seven titles have come after saving match point and winning a third set tiebreaker.
“He’s proven himself to serve quite well when it matters,” Anderson said.
After being beaten by Isner in the quarterfinals on the strength of two tiebreakers, James Blake said playing Isner always comes down to one or two points.
Over the tournament, Isner finished with just 11 more points than his opponents. He edged Anderson by two points, Lleyton Hewitt by one, Blake by nine and finished with one less point than second-round opponent Christian Harrison. Isner won six of seven tiebreakers in the tournament and came back from triple break point in both of his last two matches.
“This is a tournament where I could have been out in my first match,” he said. “I lived on the edge all week and seemed to come through for the good each and every time. It’s very encouraging.”
Isner slowly started to gain control after an uneven first set in which Anderson hit forehand returns intent on winning points, while Isner appeared to hit most of his returns just to get the ball back over the net.
Isner said he was sluggish in the first set, hitting slower-than-usual serves and using bad footwork. He credited the crowd for helping him to gain focus.
“I just stayed in the match and kept believing,” he said.
In the final tiebreaker during Anderson’s toss, Isner ran to the middle of the court to set himself up for a return that Anderson put into the net. Isner said that Anderson had been hitting his second serve from the right side to the middle throughout the match, so he decided to run around it even if it meant giving up an ace.
Isner then fired an ace to go ahead 2-0 and followed it with a serve that Anderson got his racket on but couldn’t return to take a 3-0 lead.
After Anderson used his serve to take a point, he hit another forehand into the net to give Isner a 4-1 edge and then drilled another forehand into the net to give Isner a 5-1 lead. Isner followed with an unreturnable serve to take a 6-1 advantage. Anderson answered with a tough serve to give himself a glimmer of hope at 6-2. But he followed by hitting a backhand into the net to give Isner the seventh title of his career.
“I’ve been on the wrong end of a final that close before,” Isner said. “It feels good to be on the other end of that.”