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John Isner reminds us why best of 5 sets are central to the identity of tennis

Matt Zemek

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Steve Mitchell -- USA TODAY Sports

Give John Isner credit. He did not play his best tennis this past week in Miami yet returned to the Miami Open final. He didn’t repeat his 2018 title, but came closer than a lot of people expected. He did obviously benefit from Roberto Bautista Agut upsetting Novak Djokovic. He benefited from Felix Auger-Aliassime choking late in each set of Friday’s semifinal match. Isner posted 600 points — losing 400 from 2018, but minimizing the extent of his points loss. He had no answer for Roger Federer in Sunday’s final, but merely getting there was an achievement.

Isner made his 12th Masters 1000 semifinal and fifth Masters final. Better players than Isner — certainly more complete players — have not matched those numbers. Isner certainly deserves credit for leaning on his serve to win tiebreakers, which is exactly what he did in Miami this past week and what he has done in much of his career.

You know I hate the term “servebot.” I don’t dispute that the term — in its intent and application — does fit who and what Isner is. I have no argument to make there. I will only reiterate that the serve is the most fundamental, elemental, foundational shot in tennis. Being a great server is one meal ticket in tennis; being a phenomenal returner is another. Athletes — if they find one shot or have one way to win — should use that. It is up to the opponent to either take that one shot out of their hands or use their variety to work around it and ultimately overcome it.

Five opponents could not work around that serve in Miami — more precisely, four could not. Auger-Aliassime did break Isner’s serve multiple times but then lost focus at the end of each set. Isner didn’t play his best, but athletes often don’t need their best; they just need to be better than the opponent, or as the Auger-Aliassime match showed, they need to avoid being worse in important moments.

This wasn’t a week of great tennis for Isner, but it wasn’t for many other players, either, and when the tour is struggling — as it is on the ATP, for various reasons — having one supremely strong strength (a serve) was good enough to make a final. It was ugly but effective. Sports are often like that. Winning does not have to involve style points, and it definitely doesn’t have to make spectators happy.

We have given Isner credit. Can we also acknowledge why best-of-five sets at the majors absolutely has to continue? Isner is the foremost example of why tennis cannot go down the path of shortening matches at majors.

Isner’s 12 Masters semifinals in the best-of-three format dwarf his number of major semifinals: 1.

Isner has five Masters finals and zero major finals.

Isner has 16 Masters quarterfinals, only three major quarters.

Some equations in tennis are hard to put together. This one is not: Winning with a serve alone is an extraordinarily rare thing at major tournaments. Pete Sampras had the best first and second serve in men’s tennis history, but even he needed his forehand and backhand to get crucial breaks of serve en route to his seven Wimbledon titles. Sampras was certainly more than his serve.

Maybe Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon in 2001, maybe Richard Krajicek at Wimbledon in 1996 fit the bill as well, but they also had to produce complete tennis at times to move through those tournaments.

In the three-set gun-battle world of Masters 1000 tennis, Isner has been able to acquire considerable heights. At the majors, Isner has been a completely different player, save for his noticeably bright 2017 campaign (a Wimbledon semifinal and U.S. Open quarterfinal).

This difference matters.

The majors call forth something more in a tennis player. That’s why we call them majors.

Full credit to John Isner not only for making a second straight Miami final, but for reminding us why major tournaments cannot be reduced to snack-size-length matches for ATP players.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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