By Mark Poulose
KEY BISCAYNE - An All-American night session was in order Tuesday evening at the Miami Open, with Venus Williams and John Isner playing the primetime matches at stadium court in front of a packed house at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.
While the evening was primed to be a showcase of American tennis, neither 12-seed Carla Suarez Navarro nor 5-seed Milos Raonic had any intention of filling the role of willful loser to their American opponents.
The diminutive Suarez Navarro dispatched the three-time Miami Open Champion 0-6, 6-1, 7-5 in an enigmatic match that ran almost two hours. The play of Venus and Suarez Navarro was nearly as stop-and-go as the Key Biscayne traffic, advancing in spurts while remaining frustratingly stagnant at times.
“It was a crazy match, crazy first two sets,” Suarez Navarro said. “I started a little bit nervous, but, in tennis, even if you lost the first set, you’re still in the competition. I’m happy with the way I came back after the first set.”
It was an impressive victory. Suarez Navarro withstood a powerful onslaught from Venus in the first set, containing Williams’ power and turning the match on its head from the second set onward. Williams, who breezed through the first set, struggled to put the ball in the court in the match’s final two sets.
“I was going for it the whole match,” Williams said. “Towards the end I just never found the happy medium between being aggressive and putting the ball in the court.”
After the first set bombardment from Williams, Suarez Navarro settled into her groove and began to influence the match to her advantage. The Spaniard pounced and struck on the second serve of Venus in the second set, winning a surprising 77% of points on the offering. Venus, known for her strong serve, was unable to dictate her service games, and was broken three times in the set.
The match entered a proper battle in the third, and remained on serve entering the final game. Yet, the 7-time grand slam champion Venus faltered.
With the match on serve at 6-5, Venus needed to hold serve for a second time to stay alive. Venus proved unable and wilted under the pressure, playing passively and dumping regular rally balls into the net.
“Unfortunately, [today] was a loss, but I learn a lot from them and they always make me better,” Williams said.
Her loss eliminated the possibility of an All-Williams final.
In the nightcap, Isner and Raonic battled out three tiebreak sets before the 6-foot-10 American emerged victorious 6-7(3), 7-6(6), 7-6(5). The match endured into the wee hours of the morning, with neither player able to break the other’s serve.
Isner, who entered Miami with an abysmal start to 2015, seems to have regained the form that once made him one of the top 10 players in the world.
The big serving American played with razor-thin margins all night, unable to mount a serious attack in any of Raonic’s service games, and found himself down 4-2 in the second set tiebreaker.
After missing his first serve at 4-2 in the second set tiebreaker, Isner uncorked a 125 mph second serve, slapped a forehand winner crosscourt, and never looked back. Isner took the second set tiebreaker 8-6.
Isner and Raonic both seemed content to let the match enter a deciding third set tiebreak, offering little resistance in their counterpart’s service games. This is Isner’s tried-and-true strategy: serve big, and put pressure on opponents to hold.
Raonic survived Isner’s pressure-inducing attack, and entered a third set tiebreak. The tiebreaker remained on serve until the 5-4 juncture, with Raonic serving. Raonic was unable to convert the point, giving Isner a 6-4 advantage and two match points.
The young Canadian star survived the first match point, but ultimately succumbed on the second to lose the determining tiebreak 7-5.
At the match’s conclusion, Isner tallied 117 points to Raonic’s 116.