By John Delong
John Isner had to dig deep to pull out a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Andrey Kuznetsov on Tuesday night in the second round of the Winston-Salem Open.
But Isner would be the first to say that he did not accomplish the thrilling comeback victory by himself.
The Greensboro native, currently ranked No. 14, gave credit to a large crowd at the Wake Forest Tennis Complex for their support, on a hot and humid night that left him completely drained.
“I said it on the court, really, the only thing that kept me in the match was that crowd,” Isner said. “I mean, that was it. If I was playing that match in Spain or somewhere, I don’t see myself winning that match. I mean, no shot.”
The win moved the third-seeded Isner into a third-round match again on Stadium Court on Wednesday night against 14th-seeded Borna Coric. It also moved Isner to a perfect 13-0 all-time in the Winston-Salem Open; he won the titles in 2011 and 2012, and won two matches in 2014 before being forced to withdraw because of injury.
It was the 350th match win of Isner’s career.
“I knew going into this match it was going to be tough,” said Isner, who was coming off a trip to the semifinals in Cincinnati last week. “I just finished Cincinnati Saturday afternoon and drove back here Sunday and just kinda chilled out yesterday. So I knew I wasn’t going to be feeling great. But the good thing is tomorrow I should be feeling better.”
Kuznetsov, a 26-year-old Russian who came into the match ranked No. 70, jumped all over Isner in the first set, winning five straight games at one point to take control of the set. Kuznetsov then had Isner – and a nervous crowd – sweating when he came from a break down in the second set to force a tie-break. Isner got an early mini-break, though, and served out the tiebreak from there to level the match.
Isner then seemed more refreshed in the third set. He got the break he needed in the seventh game to go up 4-3, and then after holding serve he closed out the match by breaking Kuznetsov again at love.
“I felt like in the third set it seemed to me like he was running out of power,” Kuznetsov said. “Started to walk slowly and was not jumping for the ball sometimes. At some point in the match I started to think maybe he’s really tired. But at 3-all in the third set he started to play more aggressive. He put more power into his shots, and I was not expecting this. I can say I’m a little upset because I had many chances on his serve, but he’s a very good player and it was a good experience for me.”
Isner admitted the night didn’t go as planned.
“I was up 3-0 in the second and I’m thinking at that point if I could just hold on from there and win it 6-3, I’m thinking we just split sets and we’re just 40 minutes into the match,” Isner said. “But then I lost my serve and we had to play this long tiebreak and at the end of the second I had to change clothes, because I was sweating profusely. And I wasn’t feeling that great, to be honest. But somewhere I found a burst of energy and the next thing you know I rattled off something like 12 of the last 13 points.
“That’s how tennis is, though. I just got a second wind. I hadn’t had it the whole match, and then it just came to me. It’s one of those things you can’t explain.”
Isner was optimistic about feeling better Wednesday night.
“Every match here is tough,” he said. “There are a lot of good players. I do think a lot of times in tournaments the first one is the toughest. I definitely think that, and that was the case here tonight. And on top of that, he is a very good player and I needed some of my best tennis at the very end of the match.”
In other matches on Stadium Court, top-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut beat Dusan Lajovic 6-4, 6-3; sixth-seeded Steve Johnson beat Yen-Hsun Lu 6-4, 6-3; and Julien Benneteau beat second-seeded defending champion Pablo Carreno Busta 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-3.
Bautista Agut was broken three times during the course of the match, but he broke back immediately each time and wound up five of eight in break opportunities.
The Spaniard said it took him a while to get used to the conditions.
“It was a tough match,” Bautista Agut said. “My first match in Winston-Salem is always difficult getting used to the conditions and the heat. The court is a lot slower than last year and the ball was bouncing a lot higher.”
He said he was pleased with his return of serve.
“I’m used to getting my serve broken but I get breaks, too,” he said. “One of my best shots is my return. Today I made a lot of returns.”
Johnson notched his first victory of the summer hard-court season, after going out in the first round at Montreal and Cincinnati in the past two weeks. He had lost his first match in Washington prior to that.
He won seven straight games at one point in the match and his only regret was not being able to serve out the match at 5-1 in the second set. He had 11 aces and saved six of seven break points.
“I would have liked to have served it out at 5-1 but I’ll get another chance to capitalize on that moment tomorrow,” said Johnson, who will face Carlos Berlocq in the third round on Wednesday. “So it was good to get a win. I haven’t won many matches this summer, if any on the hard-court swing, so I was just trying to get through that one. He’s a good player, he knows what he’s doing on a tennis court, so it was nice to go out and get kind of a straightforward win minus the last 10-15 minutes.”
Benneteau pulled the stunner in the final match of the night, dominating the third set to oust Carreno Busta, the defending champion in a two-hour, 40-minute marathon. Benneteau had 20 break opportunities for the night, and converted five.
“To beat a guy like this, it’s been a long time,” Benneteau said. “I haven’t beat anyone ranked as high as him. Nothing is easy. I knew I had to fight. But that’s what I did.”
In other matches on outer courts, 14th-seeded Borna Coric beat Donald Young 4-6, 6-4, 6-2; Berlocq beat 2016 WSO semifinalist Viktor Troicki 3-6, 6-1, 6-2; Andreas Seppi beat 12th-seeded Aljaz Bedene 6-4, 7-5; Horacio Zeballos beat eighth-seeded Fernando Verdasco 3-6, 7-5, 6-4; Damir Dzumhur beat ninth-seeded Gilles Simon 6-4, 1-6, 6-4; Marton Fucsovics beat 17th-seeded Joao Sousa 6-3, 3-6, 6-1; Taylor Fritz beat 10th-seeded Yuichi Sugita 6-3, 6-2; and 13th-seeded Hyeon Chung beat Andrey Rublev 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.