Commentary

Isner-Federer has potential to be intriguing match-up

For a first-time Grand Slam participant, John Isner has been one cool customer. Is there any reason to think that will change in his third-round match against Roger Federer?

Updated: September 1, 2007, 12:07 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- John Isner has nowhere to hide. His 6-foot-9-inch frame makes him a walking bull's-eye for fans as he makes his way through the crowds between the practice courts and the men's locker room in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Children and adults pluck at his sleeve, look up imploringly at his fresh, open face and ask for just one more autograph, one more photo. He signs and drapes his long arms around people's shoulders. Fans on the fringes aim their cell phones at him and show each other images of Isner having his picture taken by other people.

Isner is the It Guy, and he's about to have a very sizeable It Moment -- a Saturday afternoon date on center court at Ashe with world No. 1 and veteran executioner Roger Federer. Chances are that Isner won't find many hiding places on court during their third round U.S. Open match, but perhaps he's the kind of player who won't look for them.

The 22-year-old North Carolina native and four-time All-American from the University of Georgia has shown considerable composure on the big occasions he's created for himself since he turned pro this summer, most notably in the final of the Legg-Mason tournament in Washington D.C. against No. 5 Andy Roddick. Isner pushed his fellow big hitter to a tiebreak in the second set before losing 6-4, 7-6 (4).

Nor did Isner appear intimidated Thursday when he and doubles partner Scott Oudsema played the world's top tandem, Bob and Mike Bryan, on Ashe in a match that was moved there at the last minute. Isner bounded around his half of the court like an exuberant Great Dane, displaying great touch around the net and hitting a few balls directly into the body of one twin or another.

Saturday's scenario is enough to make even the most mellow dude tighten up a little. Not long ago, Isner admitted that the exploits of the iconic Federer were about the only plotline he followed in professional tennis.

"He's the only guy, apart from when my friends are playing on TV, that I enjoy watching," Isner said this week.

"I don't know if anything's going to help me out. I don't know. I'm going to have to come up with some sort of game plan against him, but we'll see."

Isner has a few things going for him as he prepares to take on the world's best: His apparent cool, the fact that he's an unknown quantity to Federer, and most importantly, his serve, which comes in like a flaming arrow shot from a second-story window. Federer is likely to feel Isner out early in the match, watching the angle and placement of his serve and probing for weaknesses in his other shots.

It's accepted wisdom that taller players with that weapon force a lot of tiebreaks, but Federer, who doesn't care to concede ground in press conferences or anywhere else, resisted when reporters tried to draw him into conversation about the possibility.

One questioner wanted to know if he would ask towering Croatian Ivo Karlovic to hit with him to prepare for Isner.

"Don't need Ivo to get me ready for that match," Federer growled, alpha-dog-like.

Another reporter persisted on the subject of tiebreaks, asking why he wouldn't be thinking about them. "Because you hope that you're not going to be in it," Federer said, leaning forward with an intense look. "You hope you break him early, yeah, break him apart and beat him."

Well, OK then. This may be the closest Federer has ever come to sounding like a pro wrestler. Of course, he has a vested interest in making Isner think the outcome is inevitable -- something the self-deprecating Isner is well aware of.

"If I go in that match not believing I'm going to win, just happy to be out there, you know, he's going to smell that, he's going to smell that blood and just attack," Isner said.

Isner, too, said he wasn't really thinking about getting help to prepare for the match, not because he feels like a hapless victim but because the situation is so novel that he might as well check things out himself. "I don't know if anything's going to help me out," he said, charmingly bereft of pretense.

"I don't think you ask anybody's advice against him. Gosh. I mean, I don't know, maybe I'll come up with some sort of game plan. I haven't asked anybody so far."

Robby Ginepri dished out some counsel in the locker room on Friday anyway when he saw a touch of anxiety in Isner.

"I was like, 'You got to serve well to beat him. You already do it, so it's a plus,'" Ginepri said. "With a serve like that, anyone's got a chance. You know, it's tough to ever doubt what Roger can do out there. It will be an interesting match, put it that way."

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor who is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.