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John Isner advances, defeats Milos Raonic in five sets

John Isner hits a backhand return during a

John Isner hits a backhand return during a fourth round men's singles match against Milos Raonic at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

If you can dish it out, you’ve still got to be able to take it.

Exhibit A: No. 11 seed John Isner, the blowtorch server whose percentage of service games won leads all players in the men’s field at the U.S. Open — 83 of 87 games, 95 percent — nevertheless needed five sets to prevail against No. 25 Milos Raonic. In part, because Isner’s percentage of return games won — 11 of 87, 13 percent — is among the worst.

Exhibit B: Raonic has had the same problem, winning 90 percent of his service games — the tournament average is 78 percent — but only 15 percent of return games. Those strengths and relative failings manifested themselves in Sunday’s back-and-forth 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 Isner victory.

Exhibit C: In the day’s most obvious anomaly, last year’s Open runner-up and current No. 5 seed Kevin Anderson was beaten in straight sets by No. 9 Dominic Thiem, a clay court specialist who — like Anderson, Isner and Raonic — has above-average service-game success and less-than-stellar security in his return game. Anderson has prospered 91 percent of the time while serving, 11 percent while receiving. Thiem’s numbers are 93 percent and 24 percent. Thiem won, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (2).

Isner and Raonic reached 141 miles per hour and 137 with their serves, respectively. Beyond that, Isner, at 33, demonstrated that he has grown his all-around game closer to his outsized height — 6-6. Including his extended five-set loss to the 6-8 Anderson in this year’s Wimbledon semifinal, Isner is having his best year with some clearly refined net play. He can’t be dismissed as a one-trick pony.

On Sunday, it didn’t help Raonic, who lately has battled various injuries, that he developed a right hip pain that impacted his major weapon. “It was hard to jump on the serve,” he said.

In the Thiem-Anderson duel, the little surprise was that Thiem’s serve ruled the day. Though not exceptionally fast — 135 mph, tops, and averaging 106 — Thiem never allowed Anderson a glimpse at even one break point, and meanwhile blunted Anderson’s primary weapon.

“He made life pretty difficult for me,” Anderson said. “I thought he defended amazingly. And, just over time, when someone is holding serve easily, it makes life tough.” It helped him, Thiem said, that Armstrong provides “a huge court. I could go very far back, like I do on clay usually,” to handle Anderson’s serve.

In both matches, of course — even among the quick bursts and short points in the Isner-Raonic scuffle — there was some shotmaking beyond the heavy serves.

Primary exhibit: Down a set but leading 3-2 in the second, Isner tried a thoroughly uncharacteristic sliced drop shot that froze Raonic while, as if in slow motion, the ball barely made it over the net. The packed Armstrong Stadium crowd bellowed its appreciation. Isner gave a theatrical shrug.

Now he’s through to the Open quarterfinal for only the second time in 12 Open appearances — the last time in 2011. “I’ve been around forever,” he said. “But, just keep going. Why not me?”

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