The Bizarre Battle of the Big Bombers

Seeing Milos Raonic and John Isner matched up against each other in the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 2018 reminded me of this strange match the two had had at the Miami Open three and a half years earlier.  For the first two sets, it appeared we might be seeing a reprise of that earlier match.  Both were won in tiebreaks without any service breaks having occurred.  But in the third set, Isner broke Raonic’s serve.  He broke him again in the fourth set, and before long, the match was over. It turned out that Raonic had suffered a leg injury late in the first set.  Had he not done so, we might indeed have seen a reprise of that earlier match.  But eventually, we got that reprise after all, when Isner faced South African Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon semis. This time, Isner came out on the losing end, in a 6 hour, 36 minute marathon.

The following was originally written in 2015, the morning after the aforementioned Miami Open match.  Upon rereading the piece, I see no reason to change anything.

In the end, it may only have been the tiebreak games that made the “Battle of the Bombers,” the 2015 Miami Open match between Milos Raonic and John Isner, at all bearable.

          The three-set match, eventually won by Isner in the third set tiebreaker, did not include a single break of serve.  Indeed, the entire match saw only four break points, Raonic facing one, and Isner, three.

          By the middle of the first set, it was becoming increasingly clear that absent a dramatic development (such as an injury) or major mental lapses on the part of either or both players, the set was likely to end in a tiebreaker.  Watching the games leading up to the tiebreaker was about as exciting as watching a round of artillery practice.  The 6’10” Isner and 6’5” Raonic would load up, aim, and fire—mostly with predictable results.  Rallies of any length were few and far between.  A great many of the points were decided on the basis of the serve, or the return of serve; many more on the basis of “rallies” of three shots or fewer. As the evening wore on, the eventual denouement of each set—the tiebreaker–became ever more predictable.  You could, if you wished, step out for coffee, a drink, or even a light meal.  The basic situation would not have changed one iota in your absence.  So long as you were back in time for the tiebreaker, you really would not have missed anything of importance.

          One reason to be grateful for the tiebreaker is that we have seen what happens in some Isner matches in situations where there is no tiebreaker (such as the fifth set of major tournaments such as Wimbledon).  The matches can go on. . .and on. . .and on.  In 2010, Isner was part of the longest tournament match ever played, an 11-hour marathon that stretched on for three days at Wimbledon.  He would eventually win the first-round match by the incredible score of 70-68.  Two years later, he was on the losing end of a 5 hour, 40 minute second-round match at the French Open.  Who knows how long Isner and Raonic might have gone on in Miami without the availability of the tiebreaker to lead to some kind of resolution?

          Most important for our purposes, the tiebreaker, by changing the scoring system, introduces a totally different dynamic into the match.  The basic unit of measurement becomes not the game, as in “regulation” play, but the individual point.  This lent a greater intensity to last night’s proceedings since (unlike in regulation play) the players could not let up for a single point.  One point could mean the difference between victory and defeat in the set.  Thus there were some real rallies—arguably the best rallies of the match occurred during the three tiebreak games—and some “mini-breaks” of service, where the receiver was able to wrest points away from the server.  The drama of the tiebreak games was heightened by their contrast to the utterly predictable “regulation” games that had led up to the tiebreak.

          Early on in the second-set tiebreaker, it appeared that Raonic had the situation well in hand.  Not only had he won the first set, beating Isner decisively in the first set tiebreaker, but he had a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker.  Just four more points, and the match would be his.  But then, his previously reliable first serve deserted him.  So did his ground strokes.  At one point, he put an utterly routine forehand return into the net.  Isner was quick to take advantage, soon tying Raonic and before long winning the tiebreaker by a score of 8-6.          

          One could fairly ask why Raonic continues to have so much trouble with Isner, whom he has not beaten in three matches, despite his being clearly the more coordinated athlete and the better all-around player, as reflected in the two players’ respective rankings entering the match.  (Raonic was ranked #6 in the world, while Isner was ranked #17).

          One possibility is that the 29-year-old Isner’s greater tournament experience puts him at an advantage at crucial points in matches with the 24-year-old Raonic.  Two or three years ago, when Raonic was still a largely unknown up-and-comer, such an explanation might have had a certain salience.  But since then, Raonic has made it to the semi-finals of Wimbledon and the quarter-finals of various other Grand Slam events.  He has beaten Rafael Nadal and acquitted himself well against other members of the “Big Four,” such as Roger Federer. His lifetime earnings are in the $8 million range—somewhat greater than Isner’s $7.2 million despite his significantly shorter period on the tour.

          In short, despite his comparative youth, Raonic is no longer an unproven youngster, but rather a battle-hardened veteran much like Isner himself.  So Isner’s greater tournament experience doesn’t really go very far toward explaining his perennial dominance over the Canadian.

          Another explanation may be that when playing Isner—one of few players on the tour who is significantly taller than him, and possessed of as hard a serve—Raonic is forced into an unfamiliar role, that of (by comparison) the little man.  Isner is one of few opponents he cannot simply overpower.  The American (as we saw last night) will always be able to serve at least as hard as the Canadian.  To beat him, Raonic must move him around from side to side, and engage him in longer baseline rallies—the sort of strategies that his opponents normally use against him.  It may be that, up until now, at least, the psychological adjustment to a different role has just been too much for the young Canadian.

Alternatively, the explanation could be simpler—namely that in the end, size did matter.  At least for the time being.  What this explanation suggests is that at the end of the day, size and strength prevailed—if only by a whisker—over quickness, agility, and superior tennis skills.  Sometimes Goliath does beat David, despite David’s best efforts.

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