There is a certain redundancy to championship tennis. Rafael Nadal advancing to U.S. Open fourth round for the 11th time in his last 12 appearances. John Isner leading the tournament in aces served, even as he is bounced from the competition in the third round for the sixth time in eight years.
As the second week commences in Flushing Meadows, most of the new faces and new developments are in the women’s draw. Among the men, the over/under on shocking developments continues to be quite low.
Nadal, three times the Open champion and winner of 16 major-tournament titles, cruised past 23-year-old South Korean qualifier Chung Hyeon, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, on Saturday. “I didn’t face a breakpoint,” Nadal noted. “That’s a positive thing. And best thing is, without playing great, I was able to have a very comfortable score.”
As for Isner, facing 2014 champion Maric Cilic of Croatia, “We knew going into the match,” Cilic said, “that one or two points would decide.” Sure enough, Cilic’s 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory turned on small differences. In total points won, in fact, Isner had more — 146 to 143.
Isner also pounded 40 aces against Cilic and finished with 91 in the tournament. Another common occurrence. The next highest total was 76, by 22-year-old Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan — also eliminated on Saturday, by Spain’s 70th-ranked Pablo Andujar in straight sets.
But it was the potential 92nd ace that badly wounded Isner. Serving at 6-7 in the third-set tiebreaker, on the verge of taking a lead in the match, Isner double faulted. It was only Isner’s sixth double fault in his three matches, and the first time he had double-faulted on a set point since 2004. His racket suffered the consequences, smashed by Isner as he walked to his chair.
Isner saved two Cilic match points in the eight game of the fourth set, but Cilic served out the ninth, finishing with an ace. Cilic had 21 against Isner and is up to 51 in the tournament and he left Isner, who has been the highest-ranked American male for most of the last decade, feeling the sport’s tendency toward déjà vu.
Again, Isner is on the outside looking in at the conventional lineup of top seeds still playing. No. 2 Nadal joins No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Roger Federer and No. 5 Daniil Medvedev, each already through to the fourth round, plus No. 6 Alexander Zverev, who had to work on Saturday to beat Slovenia’s 80th-ranked Aljaz Bedene, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-3, 7-6 (3).
No. 4 Dominic Thiem, upset in the first round by Italy’s 87th-ranked Thomas Fabbiano, is the highest men’s seed missing.
At this point, the 33-year-old Nadal said, all is “improving” for him after being forced to curtail his playing schedule earlier this year with recurring knee injuries.
“I was able to fix a little bit the body and play more or less with freedom of movements,” he said. “That gives me the chance to compete at the highest level again. And, most important, enjoy the sport. That’s the main thing in this stage in my career.”
So, right now, about the only imponderable facing Nadal is whether he ultimately will benefit from a virtual day off earlier in the tournament, gifted a walkover victory when Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinankis forfeited because of a shoulder injury in the second round.
“You never know what’s better or worse, no?” Nadal said. “Sorry for Thanasi…he’s very young and he already has plenty of issues, physical issues. I hope it’s not too bad.
“For me, in some way, I will prefer to play that match. But in some way it is true that you save energy, so you never know what is the best thing. The main thing, I am happy to be where I am. I’m in the fourth round.”
And what that means to Cilic is what the second week of a major always means, that “when you play these top guys, you have to come up with your great tennis. Because they’re going to be there, day in and day out.”