John Isner couldn’t have written a better script for his third career ATP World Tour title.
The Greensboro native completed a perfect homecoming week by beating qualifier Julien Benneteau 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the Winston-Salem Open final on Saturday afternoon.
Isner started slowly, as he had throughout the week, but eventually cut down on his unforced errors as the match went on and got his booming serve on track.
It was his second ATP World Tour title of the summer; he won on grass at Newport last month.
"It means a lot, for sure," Isner said. "Any time you can win a tournament at this level, it’s a huge accomplishment. And for me personally, this is great because I did it here in virtually my hometown. Obviously I couldn’t have asked for anything better, and in my opinion I think this is perfect preparation for me heading up north."
Isner is the 28th seed in next week’s US Open. In his first-round match, he’ll take on Marcos Baghdatis, the player he beat here in the third round.
"The thing I’ll take with me is confidence," Isner said. "Lots of times in this tournament I don’t feel I played spectacular, but sometimes those are the matches when you don’t play perfect and win, those are the ones that give you the most confidence. Three out of five’s a different animal, it’s such a long match there are a lot of ups and downs, so mentally it’s a bit relaxing because I know if I’m in a hole, I can calm down and look back on the fact that I’ve just won my last event.
"It’s just all about confidence, and that’s what I feel I have right now. When you’re confident, things just seem to fall your way, and that’s what I hope happens in New York, obviously."
Things certainly weren’t falling Isner’s way in the first set against Benneteau, who was playing the ninth match in eight days after going through three qualifying matches last weekend. Isner struggled with high winds that blew through the Harold and Mildred Southern Stadium court, and Benneteau simply was more precise in the first set. Benneteau eventually broke in the ninth game for a 5-4 lead and then served out the set.
"Obviously the wind’s the same for both of us, but he was handling it better than I was the first set," Isner said. "He was playing solid and making balls. That’s what you have to do. You have to play to a big margin of the court and try not to go for lines. I felt I was going for lines a little too much and the balls just weren’t finding the court. You really have to be on top of your footwork in the wind because the ball is just going every which way, and he was doing a lot better at that then me.
"Fortunately for me, I felt like it calmed down at one point there in the second set and pretty much in the third. There were still a couple of gusts, but for the most part the first set was the worst part of the wind."
Isner then got his first break of the match in the eighth game of the second set, and by then he was usually holding serve easily. He wound up the day with 19 aces, four service winners, and won 51 of 61 first serves for the match.
"He has a huge serve," Benneteau said. "First and second serve are very hard to read. He serves to every zone, every spot. I tried to do my best, but it is very difficult."
Isner then dramatically cut his unforced errors down in the third set – he had 34 unforced errors for the match but just seven in the third set – and got the only break he needed in the fifth game to go up 3-2.
"It was just me making more balls and being more aggressive with my feet," Isner said. "That’s really all it was. I was just lackluster out there for a good part of that match, especially in the first set. I just told myself to try to get my intensity up and try to move ahead a little bit in his return games. It puts so much pressure on my opponent when I can do that. My goal was just to try to get ahead early in one of those service games and I did at 4-3 in the second and got the break. And once I broke serve there, I felt confident for the rest of the match."
For Benneteau, it was a bitterly disappointing defeat. The 29-year-old Frenchman was looking for the first ATP title of his 11-year career, after losing four times in previous finals.
He beat three seeded players en route to the finals – Igor Kunitsyn, Sergei Stakhovsky and then Robin Haase in a 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 semifinal thriller.
"At the moment it is difficult because I am disappointed," Benneteau said. "Losing for me in the final is tough. But as my coach said, if I was told at the beginning of the week last Saturday morning when I played my first-round qualies that I would make a final, I would have signed it for sure. So I have to be positive about the week, the way I played. I had some matches that were very close to how I played last year before my (wrist) injury. So it is a very good, positive thing."
Isner had empathy for his opponent.
"He played nine matches in eight days, and he didn’t just played two-set matches, he played a lot of three-set matches," Isner said. "So as far as time on the court, he’s gotta be drained mentally and physically. He’s a professional. He’ll be ready to go in New York. But absolutely, he went through a lot this week for sure."