GIJON, Spain – John Isner gave it his all and battled Nicolas Almagro the same way he battled Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon in Davis Cup, but for the first time this year, came up just short.
Almagro handed Isner his first Davis Cup loss in five matches in 2012, as he won 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 on his fourth match point in four hours, 16 minutes to give Spain a commanding 2-0 lead over the U.S. after Day 1 in the Davis Cup Semifinals.
In the first match, David Ferrer defeated Sam Querrey 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 in the best-of-five series.
For Isner, it was his second straight five-set match, as he fell to Philipp Kohlschrieber in five in the third round of the US Open, but this one was nearly an hour longer. He was not at his sharpest throughout the match, with 95 unforced errors to 63 winners, and he used his giant serve as always to consistently bail him out of trouble, hitting 24 aces to help fight off 16 of the 19 break-point chances he faced and three match points.
But he couldn’t bail himself out of the last one, with the three straight errors to give Almagro the break on his fourth match point, missing a volley cross-court wide for deuce, a close volley into the net to give the advantage to Almagro and then pushing a forehand long as he moved in to give the Spaniard the match win.
"Those were pretty bad errors, simple shots, especially the volleys I missed," Isner said of the last three points. "I think I missed three volleys in that game that I should have won, all of them. Maybe fatigue made those routine shots a little harder. That was disappointing because I did such a good job the whole fourth set and the fifth set of just hanging in there, and I just sort of gave it away at the end."
In U.S. Davis Cup Team history, the team is 1-37 when falling behind 0-2, with the only win coming back in 1934. Since the creation of the World Group in 1981, Spain is 37-0 when leading 2-0 after the first day.
As a whole, U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier was extremely pleased with how both Isner and Querrey fought and the heart they put into their matches, and while they are facing a difficult task of winning the last three matches, the tie is not over yet.
"Nothing is impossible. Our sport doesn’t have a clock; you have to win the last point. Spain will do everything it can to win the last point, as will the United States, but nothing is impossible," Courier said. "Proud of both these guys. They both went out there and laid it on the line and fought hard. They were two great battles, and all of us on the team are very proud of what these guys did today."
Isner, the world No. 10, was also consistently getting looks at second serves from Almagro, ranked No. 12, but had just six break-point chances in the match and converted on two, one of which helped win him the fourth set.
He was consistently fighting out of trouble in the fourth starting at 2-all, when he went down 0-40 but, with three consecutive volley winners, brought the game to deuce. After gaining the advantage, he closed out the game to remain on serve with an ace for 3-2.
In his next service game, he was down 15-40 after a volley winner from Almagro but again was not going down without a fight. He used his serve to force a return error from Almagro and then another to bring the game to deuce. Almagro hit a backhand passing shot down the line to gain the advantage and his third break-point chance, but Isner came up big again, hitting a forehand volley winner to go back to deuce. Four points later, he won the game with a forehand winner for 4-3 on serve.
And it didn’t stop there. In the next game, he hit a great forehand cross-court passing shot to earn just his fourth break point of the match, and he converted on the very next point for just his second break, when Almagro hit a volley into the net for 5-3. He then held at love to win the set 6-3 and force the deciding fifth set.
The fifth progressed on serve with the first break-point chance for either player in the fifth game on Almagro’s serve, as Isner gained a chance, but Almagro rebounded as the American hit a forehand return long down the line for deuce. Isner never gained another break chance, as Almagro closed it out after two more deuces, when Isner hit a forehand into the net for 3-2.
After Almagro held for 5-4, Isner found himself quickly in another hole, this time with the match on the line. A backhand into the net gave Almagro his first match point at 15-40, but the Spaniard was unable to convert, hitting a shot long. He had one more match point, but Isner came up with another huge ace to bring the game to deuce.
But another Isner error, hitting a cross-court forehand wide, brought up match point No. 3 for the Spaniard. Yet again, however, the American was equal to the task, smacking his 22nd ace of the match for deuce. Two points later, he hit his 23rd to keep himself alive at 5-all.
However, living dangerously caught up with Isner in what turned into his final service game, as he hit his 24th ace to pull himself even at 30-all, and a great forehand shot that Almagro could not return had him one point away from 6-all. He had another chance to close out the game two points later with an advantage, but then the errors started to pile up for the clearly tired American. Three points and errors later, it was an 0-2 Spanish lead.
"I had my chances in the fifth set, and I didn’t capitalize, and that is really what it came down to, I think," Isner said.
In the opening match, Ferrer, fresh off a US Open semifinal appearance, played consistent and steady, if not at his best, as Querrey struggled with unforced errors and was unable to take advantage of nine break-point opportunities in the fourth set to force a fifth.
The Spaniard was better able to take advantage of the big opportunities throughout the match, converting on six of 13 break-point chances to just two of 14 for Querrey. Querrey also hit 70 unforced errors and landed just 52 percent of his serves, which were very effective when he was able to get them in, winning 72 percent of points on his first serve to just 39 percent on his second.
But despite his error struggles, Querrey was still in the match and had his chances to force a fifth set and win the match.
In the second game of the fourth set, Ferrer fought back five break-point chances with some good first serves and errors from the American and closed it out for 2-all when Querrey hit a cross-court return just wide for 1-all. Two games later, Querrey had Ferrer in trouble again, taking a 0-40 advantage, but the feisty Spaniard defended them all, with two long returns from Querrey and then an overhead volley winner to bring the game to deuce. Querrey had one more chance when Ferrer hit a backhand long, but after another good rally, Querrey netted a forehand, and four points later, Ferrer held for 2-all after another long return from the American.
He knew not capitalizing on any of those break-point chances cost him a chance to push the match to a fifth.
"That fourth set, even the second game, I had five break points," Querrey said. "A couple of them I should have been more aggressive on some shots that I could have hit, but he played good points for most of them. I feel if I get one of those breaks in either of those games or both those games, I feel it is a different match and we might still be out there in a fifth set. I think it was just a few points here and there that were really the difference."
Querrey had regrouped in the first set after being broken in his opening service game and broke back for 4-all in the eighth when, after a great rally, he smacked a winner down the line. After a hold, he then broke again to win the first set, when Ferrer hit a shot high into the air and long, returning a hard shot from Querrey to the far right line.
If anyone can keep the U.S. alive in this tie, it would be Bob and Mike Bryan. The pair, won the US Open last week for their 12th career Grand Slam title, setting the Open Era record for most major doubles titles. The two have also been money for the U.S. in their Davis Cup careers, going 19-2 together and are undefeated on the road and on clay, giving Courier and the entire team lots of confidence. They will face Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez in the doubles rubber Saturday.
"Tomorrow is going to be a big battle, as well, much like today’s singles," Courier said. "Bob and Mike are extremely confident and extremely prepared, and I believe that the Spanish team feels the same. There is a lot on the line. That is what makes Saturday pretty special. A lot can change momentum-wise on Saturday, and Bob and Mike typically do a good job of that if we need them."