At 6ft 9in tall John Isner towers over almost all his opponents, but the 24-year-old American was cut down to size by Andy Murray in the fourth round of the Australian Open here today. Murray won 7-6, 6-3, 6-2, though the scoreline barely did justice to the world No 4’s superiority. Once the first set was over Murray gave a master class to reach the quarter-finals here for the first time.
Murray has now reached the last eight of all four Grand Slam tournaments, though this is the first time he has done so without losing a set. His next challenge will be significantly tougher. Murray faces Rafael Nadal, the world No 2 and defending champion, who beat another of the game’s giants, Ivo Karlovic, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
As a player with one of the best returns in the game, Murray handles big servers as well as anyone. Isner had hit 81 aces in his first three matches here – only Karlovic had hit more - and the world No 28 came into this tournament having just won his first tour title. At the last Grand Slam event of 2009 he had enjoyed the best win of his career by knocking Andy Roddick out of the US Open.
However, there is little subtlety to Isner’s game. Apart from a big serve and forehand he has no major weapons. The American rarely follows his serve into the net, struggles with volleys below waist height, lacks confidence on his backhand and moves sluggishly in comparison with an outstanding athlete like Murray.
The Scot played his man beautifully, manoeuvring him around the court and forcing him into a steady flow of errors. When he had the opportunity to attack Murray did so, but he looked equally comfortable when Isner took the initiative. Murray struck winning passing shots when Isner came forward and when he stayed back the American was tortured with exquisitely judged drop shots.
The statistics told the story of the match: Murray made just eight unforced errors to Isner’s 41 and won 16 out of the 18 points he played at the net compared with Isner’s return of 29 from 59. While Isner hit 14 aces to Murray’s five, the Scot put 71 per cent of his first serves into court and hit only one double fault. “I played well today,” Murray said afterwards. “I’ve concentrated well in all of my matches.”
Nevertheless, against an opponent with as big a serve as Isner’s nothing can be taken for granted. Murray considers it the best serve in the game in that the American has more variety than Karlovic. The Scot prepared by having his coach, Miles Maclagan, bombard him with serves struck from the service line.
Most of the first set was predictable enough, with Murray dropping just two points in his first five service games and regularly threatening the Isner serve without making a breakthrough. At 5-6, however, Murray appeared to tighten up and played his worst service game of the match. Two poor forehands gave Isner a set point, which the American narrowly failed to convert when he struck a forehand wide. Isner won the first point of the tie-break, but thereafter Murray took command and won it 7-5.
Isner kept hanging on to his serve in the second set until Murray finally broke in the eighth game. The American went for broke when Murray served at 5-3, attacking the net when he could and forcing two break points, but the Scot held firm.
At 2-2 and 0-30 in the third set Murray broke again with two points of sheer brilliance. The Scot chased down a smash, leaping in the air to hit a backhand that Isner failed to dig out from under his feet, and won the game with a superb running backhand pass down the line which he celebrated with something resembling a Scottish reel.
Two games later Murray broke again, upon which a thoroughly disillusioned Isner smashed his racket on the ground. The match ended after two hours and 12 minutes in appropriate fashion with a winning Murray drop shot.
“I thought it was a really good performance,” Murray said afterwards. “Of my unforced errors, probably three of them were in the 6 5 game in the first set and a couple early in one of my service games in maybe the second set. So it was really good. I focused well, concentrated hard and served well. Everything was good.”
As for the challenge of playing Isner, Murray said: “Obviously certain things are similar to playing Karlovic, who I've played a few times. John doesn't really serve and volley much. He plays a bit more from the baseline. He's got more variety on his serve, I think. He can put a lot of spin on the second serve. He varies it really well. He's got a big forehand from the back of the court. He actually makes a lot of balls, so it's tricky.”