Commentary

This time Isner comes up short

Updated: January 22, 2011, 2:38 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- For John Isner, it was probably just a sprint.

Isner was back in five-set territory Saturday, going the distance against Marin Cilic in the third round of the Australian Open.

This time, however, he didn't have to play 138 games in the deciding set. And -- unlike at Wimbledon against Nicolas Mahut in an 11-hour, 5-minute blockbuster spread over three days -- the North Carolina native couldn't advance. Cilic progressed instead, 4-6, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2), 9-7 in a mere 4 hours, 33 minutes.

One day.

"I didn't want to go out in the round of 32. It stinks," a dejected Isner told a small group of reporters. "It's going to be tough to sleep tonight. I felt like it was one, not I let get away, but one I should have won."

Serving to start the fifth is a decided advantage, which Isner discovered at Wimbledon. He won that one 70-68.

But the roles were reversed on a raucous Margaret Court Arena, with Isner always chasing in the fifth. He finally cracked on a second match point, mis-hitting a forehand wide.

In the bigger picture, the result means that only one American landed in the fourth round. And Andy Roddick will have his hands full getting any further, facing a rejuvenated Stanislas Wawrinka in Sunday's night session.

As is usually the case in an Isner match, or at least on a faster surface, a few points made the difference.

Isner, having seen one break point in the third and fourth sets combined, manufactured one in the fifth game of the fifth. Cilic saved it with an impressive forehand, no small feat, since his forehand in the past year has been as steady as a roller coaster.

Indeed, Isner said one of his tactics was to play the ball down the middle to the forehand and hope for a few errors. Cilic only contributed 16 on that wing in the entire match, three in the fifth set.

Isner paid the price for missing four first serves in the final game. Cilic had given Isner a second chance, too, shakily dumping a backhand into the net on a first match point. Isner lost three points in succession to seal his fate.

Cilic leapt in joy. Another defeat for Cilic -- last year's semifinalist who slumped the second half of last season -- and he would have slipped outside the top 20.

"When I saw it coming to six-all in the fifth, I thought, 'Is it better to play a tiebreak or two games difference?'" Cilic told ESPN in a courtside interview. "But I felt physically really good. I was on top of the ball, serving well in the fourth and fifth sets. I didn't lose too many points."

Isner appeared to be wobbling as the match wore on but was adamant that he only felt weary in the fourth set. Once the sun went down, he added, he was fine. Daytime temperatures hovered around 86 degrees as summery weather surfaced for a second straight day.

The fourth-set tiebreaker was the turning point. Isner began with an unforced error -- and ended with two double faults.

"You're up two sets to one and the finish line is right there in the fourth," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. "He should have been blasting his way through the fourth set."

One of Isner's goals at the start of the season was to reach a first Grand Slam quarterfinal. The probability of that happening in Melbourne was always going to be minimal, since he'd have probably faced world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who is seeking a fourth straight major, in the fourth round. Yet Isner also said in the offseason he wanted to get a crack at the elite more often.

"It's why you play the game, to get a shot against a guy like that at a Grand Slam," said Isner, who hit 26 aces, far from the 113 he struck at the All England Club. "I would have loved to have played him. I'll get there eventually, get a shot at a guy like him."

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.