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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, August 23, 2020

John Isner

"I was just trying to stay as loose as I possibly could—try to stay loose on the big points, which I feel I did in large part," John Isner said.

Photo credit: Lindsey Godwin/Miami Open/IMG

Playing his first match in five months, John Isner stuck a sharp landing in his winning return.

Channeling his inner Patrick Rafter on match point, an airborne Isner snapped off a snazzy backhand smash wrapping a 7-5, 6-4 win over buddy Hubert Hurkacz in his Western & Southern Opener.

More: W&S Open By The Numbers

Turning match point into exclamation point, Isner improved to 8-7 executing his pre-tournament mission statement: stay loose and lively at crunch time.

“I took the mentality out here today that I’ve been practicing hard, working out hard, but that doesn’t guarantee [anything],” Isner told ESPN’s Brad Gilbert afterward. “I was just trying to stay as loose as I possibly could—try to stay loose on the big points, which I feel I did in large part.

“That match point, I just went after it and hit a great backhand overhead. I really don’t have that shot so I got a little lucky. I’m happy to be off the court in three sets.”

Friendly fire can be fearsome too.

Yesterday, Isner and Hurkacz joined forces in doubles dismissing Aussies Luke Saville and Max Purcell in straight sets. Today, Isner denied two break points in the fifth game and was assertive at the right return times breaking once in each set.

The 2013 W&S Open finalist fired 10 aces, won 81 percent of his first-serve points and 80 percent of his second-serve deliveries in a tidy 99-minute triumph.

“Of course, I worked on my game [during the break],” Isner said. “Most importantly for me I spent a lot of time in the gym— probably more time in the gym than I did on the court… “The most important thing that I did over the course of the last six months was stay very fit in the gym. And I think I’m showing that.”

Explosiveness was evident at the right times. When Isner carved out a full-stretch backhand volley winner that lanced the line in the second set, Hurkacz slapped his right thigh in exasperation.

The world No. 29 applied initial pressure midway through the first set.

Hurkacz shoveled back a mis-hit backhand return then stood his ground correctly anticipating a crosscourt reply and flicking a forehand winner down the line for the first break point. Isner threw down a jamming serve to save it but flattened a forehand to face a second break point. Jolting a hellacious kick serve out wide, Isner erased a second break point.

The former all-American at Georgia banged his way through a tricky hold to a 3-2 lead.

Serving to extend the set in the 10th game, Hurkacz stared down a set point. The 6’5” Pole brought the heat extinguishing the first break point he faced eventually holding to level.

The big man was back at it two games later. Isner banged successive backhand returns to earn a second set point, but Hurkacz saved it with the slider serve down the T. Hurkacz roped a backhand return to save a third set point then denied a fourth set point when an Isner returned ricocheted off the tape wide.

Still, Isner kept pounding. Scraping back a low backhand, Isner drew an errant forehand converting his fifth set point to snatch the 51-minute opener. Isner won 11 of 14 second-serve points and saved both break points he faced in the set.

The late afternoon swelter took a toll on Hurkacz, who took a time-out at 1-2 in the second set for treatment of an apparent burgeoning blister near his right index finger.

Returning to court with taping on his racquet hand, Hurkacz withstood a few crackling returns working through a deuce hold for 4-all.

Throwing down a 123 mph bolt out wide, Isner served out the ninth game at 30.

Ripping a forehand down the line brought Isner to match point.

Reading his doubles partner’s wide serve, Isner danced around his backhand and scorched a diagonal forehand return that set up that soaring smash.

Next up for Isner is either Frenchman Adrian Mannarino or Aussie John Millman. Isner has won eight of nine meetings vs. Mannarino.

"It’s very nice no doubt about it we’re all happy to be back," Isner said. "I think things are taking a turn for the good in our country right now. Awesome to get tennis back on TV, which is what we’re doing right now.

"Of course, I’d rather be playing with the fans, but this is better than nothing. I think I speak for all the players that we’re happy to be out here."

Earlier, Daniel Evans used his no-pace slice backhand and all-court craft defusing 10th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 7-5, 3-6, 6-2.

Evans scored his sixth Top 20 win of 2020 improving to 12-5 on the season. Evans will face Australian Open quarterfinalist Milos Raonic next.

"I think that's one of the best matches I have probably played, and to come through with not really a serve and just my second serve getting me out of trouble, I thought I deserve to be proud of that," Evans said. "That's probably one of the better wins I have had on the tour."

American wild card Tennys Sandgren beat Lorenzo Sonego, 6-3, 7-6(7). The 55th-ranked Sandgren slashed 15 aces setting up a second-rounder vs. 15th-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Ninth-seeded Diego Schwartzman broke once in each set conquering Casper Ruud 7-6(2), 6-3.

Sporting a Fila tie-dye t-shirt, the 5’7” Schwartzman set up a second-round clash vs. 6’11” American Reilly Opelka

“Obviously it's a different feeling, going on court without people,” Schwartzman said after winning his first match since February. “But in the first set it was a few volunteers and a few friends, players and coaches, watching the match.

"So I was feeling like, okay, it's maybe a tournament that not many people is coming but someone is watching. So I'm not thinking about that.

“I'm just happy to be back on court. This is the situation right now, and we all know that it's just trying to help about health and be always, you know, healthy at the end of these two tournaments.”

US Open semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov cruised past Ugo Humbert 6-3, 6-4. The 14th-seeded Bulgarian, who won the 2017 Western & Southern Open title, meets Marton Fucsovics next.

In an all-qualifier opener, Fucsovics defeated Norbert Gombos 6-3, 6-4.


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