Tiebreak legend John Isner has now lost four tiebreaks in a row, including a demoralizing two breakers in his match yesterday against 71st-ranked Vasek Pospisil. Aside from his loss to the Canadian, however, Isner’s sudden tiebreak weakness hasn’t hurt him, nor does it seem to be a sign of poor play or weak nerves. In fact, he has excelled–as usual–on the North American hardcourts. Twice last week, against both Marcos Baghdatis and Dmitry Tursunov, Isner dropped the first set in a breaker, then came back to win the following two sets with scores of 6-4 or better.
Further, this brief spell of Haase-style tiebreak play follows a much longer stretch of typical end-of-set dominance. Until losing the first set against Kevin Anderson in the Atlanta final, Isner had won 12 breakers in a row. He immediately bounced back from the setback against Anderson by winning two breakers to claim the match, then won two more in his next match against Alex Kuznetsov.
Summary: The tiebreak mojo is still intact.
At a broader level, Isner has won 70% of his tiebreaks over the last 52 weeks, a rate higher than he has ever sustained for a full season. Specifically in 2013, he has won 28 of 39 tiebreaks, good for 72%. By comparison, Anderson has won 57% this season, Roger Federer 59%, and even the inimitable Steve Darcis has never won more than 72% of breakers for a full year.
This isn’t to take away from Pospisil’s achievement, however. Isner’s career tour-level tiebreak record of 65% suggests that taking two breakers from him in a single match is difficult, and it’s all the more so for a player who most would not consider as Big John’s equal. In 25 career tour-level tiebreaks before yesterday’s match, the Canadian had won a mere 11.
In fact, of Isner’s 258 career best-of-three-set matches on tour, this was only the seventh in which he lost two sets 7-6. Given the sheer number of tiebreaks he plays, that in itself quite the accomplishment. No one had administered such a loss to Isner since last year’s Madrid Masters, where Marin Cilic beat him 7-6 7-6.
When watching the American lose the occasional tiebreak, it’s important to remember that for the vast majority of players, breaker outcomes are essentially luck. Isner is one of the few players to demonstrate a consistent tiebreak skill, but even that skill can’t prevent the occasional serving outage or an outstanding run of play from a streaky opponent.
With Isner (and by extension, all US men) falling out of the top 20, it’s tempting to point fingers and look for answers. But don’t blame Big John. If you must find fault, blame Canada.