By John Delong
This one had third-set tiebreaker written all over it before the match even started.
John Isner and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had met three times previously before Friday afternoon’s showdown in the semifinals of the Winston-Salem Open, and two of those three times the match went the distance.
So Isner’s 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) victory was full of suspense, but not really full of surprises.
"I’m not surprised at the score line at all," Isner said afterward. "I just feel very fortunate. I made it hard on myself some. It could have been easier. But it never is when we play each other. So I’m satisfied with the way I played and I’m very, very happy to get through."
The third-seeded defending WSO champion will be making his fourth ATP World Tour finals of the year on Saturday afternoon. He successfully defended his title at Newport earlier this summer, and reached the finals at Houston and Indian Wells in the spring. He will be looking for his fifth career ATP World Tour title.
Last year, Isner beat Julien Benneteau for the title, so he has now gone 9-0 all-time on the Harold and Mildred Southern Stadium court.
"I’m very, very happy to be back in the finals," the Greensboro native said. "I said this last year, I don’t like getting to Grand Slams early. If I’m playing the week before, I want to do as well as I can. So I’ve made it as far as I can make it, I’m playing in the final match. So I’m very, very satisfied with that and I’m looking to defend my title. I did it at Newport, so maybe I can pull this off again.
Isner fired 24 aces in a dominant serving display, serving at 64 percent and winning 50 of 61 first-serve points, 82 percent.
He had plenty of chances to break the top-seeded Tsonga and avoid the tiebreaker altogether, but was 1 of 10 in break opportunities. The most disappointing came when Tsonga held at 2-2 in the third set, after falling behind love-40. Then Isner had two match points in the 12th game, leading 6-5, but could not convert.
"When I didn’t break at love-40, that was disappointing," Isner said. "I tend to play better when I’m ahead, so I was a little ticked off when I didn’t win that game. I had to hold my cool. And when I didn’t break again at 6-5, I said, ‘Look, I’ve been in this situation a lot before,’ so I was calm. I didn’t let that 6-5 game get to me in the tiebreaker."
He won on his serve to open the tiebreaker, then got the mini-break he needed on the next point, when Tsonga missed a forehand wide literally by a matter of millimeters. Tsonga challenged, and lost. Soon thereafter, Isner was up 4-1 and rolling.
"Of course it’s tough to play John from behind in a tiebreak," Tsonga said. "You know if he breaks you on the first one it’s going to be hard."
Tsonga said he was pleased with his play in general, and said that he accomplished what he wanted to accomplish this week in preparing for next week’s US Open.
"I’m disappointed to lose this match, of course," Tsonga said. "It was a good match. Maybe not the most important match, but a good match. I played great, served well. I felt good when I broke in the second. But the way he played, he played good tennis. Maybe I can be a bit more aggressive, but he is tall and he can catch every ball and you never know where he’s going to play. So it’s tough.
"I accomplished a lot this week. One of my goals here was playing some matches to get ready for the US Open, so this was good for me. So I will go there and I will be anxious to start the tournament in good shape."
Tsonga said he enjoyed his time in Winston-Salem.
"It was a good experience for me," he said. "I enjoyed the tournament. The facilities are great. I got good practice here and the conditions are quite the same as the US Open, so it was good for me to be here this week. For sure it’s not the most entertaining city, but you know, it’s good because New York is going to be something different."
Isner has now won three of his four matches against Tsonga,including a clutch victory for the U.S. Davis Cup team that clinched a quarterfinal tie this spring.