The Cloisters

The Cloisters

NEW YORK – Joe College was up to his old campus pranks.  Sort of.  But instead of chug-a-lugging steins of beer John Isner was mugging his pal, Andy Roddick, at an outdoor party called the US Open.

A gathering of 23,763 filled Arthur Ashe Stadium as John and Andy provided the floor show with an unexpected closing act: Roddick, the best American guy for the last seven years, lost.

This was late Saturday night, and maybe it was more a bash than a party because Isner, peering down at Andy from the top of his 6-foot-9 inch frame, was bashing aces all over the place, and there’s not much you can do about that, Roddick shrugs.

That’s supposed to be Roddick’s gig, bashing folks dizzy with dingers, and he was OK – yet out-aced, 38-20, Isner equaling the fourth leading total in the tournament’s history. His quickest ace was 140 MPH, Roddick’s 139 MPH.

For nearly four hours they fired away at each other, brief slugging points, and it came down to one shot – a nifty backhand passing shot for the mini-break in the fifth set tie-breaker.  Isner, an easy-going tower of power out of Greensboro, N.C., and the University of Georgia, had his finest victory, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (7-5).

Nothing could have been more painful for Roddick, who was generating his most exceptional tennis at Wimbledon, nearly toppling the champ, Roger Federer, in their scintillating final.

It had been a bad day in Flushing for the top homeboys: Nos. 5-22-23 Roddick, Sam Querrey, James Blake, all gone.  Left standing: No. 55 Isner himself.

This is the new Isner, at 24, finding new confidence after seeming too much Joe College.  Not many college guys make it in the pros because they have to play catch-up.  Isner says, “In my case going to college was the right thing.  I wasn’t good enough out of high school to be a pro.  But I got used to winning all the time at Georgia [he led them Dawgs to the NCAA title two years ago], and I came into the pros real confident.  Then last year I hit a rut, and lost in the first round here.”

Gothic chapel with crucifix from 1150-1200

Gothic chapel with crucifix from 1150-1200

Patrick McEnroe, the US Davis Cup captain, had worried about Isner.  “There’s still the fraternity boy in him.  He won’t work hard enough.  Hope he turns it around. There’s so much talent in that big body.”

As the second tallest pro ever [Ivo Karlovic, the Leaning Tower of Zagreb, is 6-10], Isner needed work on movement and general conditioning.”  Mononucleosis kept him out of the French – “But I’m in tip-top shape now he says, ready for today’s clash with the rugged Spanish lefty, Fernando Verdasco, who almost beat Rafa Nadal in the Australian semis.

Roddick says, “There’s no comparison between last year and now for John.  He’s more professional now, doing things he needs to be doing.  That serve gets him out of a lot of trouble. But his new coach [Craig Boynton] deserves a lot of credit.

Isner agrees.  “Craig’s got me working hard, going to the weight room, making me understand the game more.”

Roddick applauds, “John’s rolling the dice.  He makes guys uncomfortable coming in.  Sitting back and just rallying doesn’t work for him.  He’s got to come out and take people out of their rhythm.  Being so big he’s capable of that.”

Although he was emotionally down for a few minutes before taking the court – “Georgia was losing to Oklahoma State” – he pulled his serve-and-volley game together immediately.  “I just grip it and rip it,” he laughs about his style.

“You know it was a great day for Georgia with me and Melanie [Oudin] winning big matches [she beating Maria Sharapova].  Melanie’s feisty, she plays with heart.  She didn’t go to college, to Georgia, but she’s a little Bulldog.

Miraculous Melanie is up again today.  The kid who devours higher ranked Russians for lunch (having beaten three of them) intends to hound No. 13 Nadia Petrova.

Two American women remain following champ Serena’s 6-2, 6-0, putdown of Slovak Daniela Hantuchova.  But sister Venus is gone.  In a bizarre bagel-laden battle of ex-champs she was edged by mighty Mama, the reappearing Kim Clijsters, 6-0, 0-6, 6-4.

They last met four years ago in the quarters, Kim winning and continuing to the title.  A wrist injury kept her from defending her title in 2006, and then she retired to marriage and motherhood.

“Weird,” Clijsters called this one.  She might have said, “Will you have cream cheese?” on serving Venus the first set bagel.  Then Venus could have replied, “How about lox?” in rolling out the second bagel.

St. Gilhem Cloister

St. Gilhem Cloister

Wild card Kim feels, “At this moment I can compete with the best players.”

But in serving the concluding game, she was trapped at 0-30, then 15-40.  “I’m not even going to tell you what was going on in my mind,” she smiles (Kim always smiles whatever).  I was shaking.  My arm felt like 50 pounds or more.  I told myself, ‘Look, don’t give it away.  Just play aggressive, and let her come up with good shots to win it.’ “

She swatted a winning forehand, Venus erred twice, and Kim banged a service winner on match point.

It wasn’t John Isner at 140 MPH, but good enough.

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