John Isner took Christian Harrison on the ride of his life Thursday night.
Favored in every conceivable way, world No. 22 Isner needed about 2 1/2 hours to shake himself free of Harrison in a second-round match at the BB&T Atlanta Open. Harrison, a 19-year-old who grew up in Shreveport, La., and ranks 373rd in the world, nearly pulled off a monumental upset against the top-seeded Isner, losing 7-6 (9), 4-6, 7-5.
Said Isner, “I was very fortunate just to win.”
Harrison, who received a wild card into the tournament and was playing in the main draw of a ATP World Tour event for the first time in his career, swung from his heels until the end. He fought off three match points, once with a gutsy drop shot, before Isner closed out the match with two consecutive aces.
“I can have a lot to look back on,” Harrison said. “I got my first tour win here and I had a real chance tonight, and so I’ll be able to look back on that and use that as motivation for my next matches and practice days.”
On a muggy night under the Midtown skyline, Harrison and Isner gave the near-capacity crowd — widely on the side of the former Georgia star Isner — their money’s worth. When the match had run its course, Isner had won 109 points, collecting 29 of them on aces, and Harrison had won 110.
“Honestly, I felt like it coudl have gone one of two ways,” Isner said. “This is a match where a guy like Christian, he doesn’t have much to lose, and so a lot of times in a match like that, that person can come out and play horrible or they can be pretty good. And I thought he played pretty well. He’s a very good player.”
From the outset, Harrison dug into Isner and refused to let go. Both players held serve through the first set, leading to a tiebreaker. Isner needed to save three set points to pull out the tiebreaker 11-9. They held serve again through the second set, and Isner served down 4-5. He double faulted on set point to give Harrison the set.
“I felt like I handled (the match) well,” Harrison said. “It didn’t really feel like my emotions got away from me ever.”
In the third set, they held serve again, with Harrison finally blinking on serve at 5-5. Leading 30-love, Harrison double faulted and lost the next point as well. Down an ad, Harrison rolled a forehand into the net to give Isner the game, a 6-5 lead and a chance to serve for the match that he seized.
“He’s up and coming, and we use that term a lot, but he really is,” Isner said.
It was a day to be long remembered by the Harrison family. Earlier in the day, Christian’s older brother Ryan ousted No. 4 seed Igor Sijsling 6-4, 6-3 to move into the quarterfinals. Following Christian’s first-round win Wednesday and again Thursday morning, older brother told younger brother that he had a chance against Isner.
Ryan said prior to the match that he was “just telling him that if he trusts himself and if he goes out there and just stays calm and confident and doesn’t get overwhelmed by the moment, if he just plays tennis, he’s going to give himself a chance to win.”
He followed instructions, refusing to succumb to the pressure of the moment and rocketing aggressive shots from the baseline back at Isner.
“He’s as good from the baseline as anybody,” Ryan Harrison said. “Obviously, Isner is known for his big serve and holding pretty easily, but I feel like Christian’s got a good chance on baseline points. So it could be fun if he plays well.”
Little did he know.
Both Harrisons are coached by their father, Pat, who played at Oklahoma State and Mississippi and briefly played professionally. He and his wife, Susie, are in town this week.
“There’s probably nothing more exciting (for) my dad, being able to walk off the court watching me and then go warm (Christian) up and then come back and watch him play,” Ryan Harrison said. “It’s got to be what my dad has been dreaming about, and we’ve all been dreaming about, ever since this all started whenever we both were real young, just hitting a ball over the net from half court.”
Isner, interestingly, continued a pattern in which he has met considerable challenge in his opening Atlanta Open match. Isner has earned a bye into the second round each year and every time needed three sets to win. In 2010 and 2011, he won two sets by tiebreaker.
“It’s always great to be in the second round right away when the tournament starts, but at the same time, it’s tough because you haven’t really gotten a chance to get inotthe tournament,” Isner said.
Isner will move on to play fellow American and good friend James Blake in a Friday quarterfinal in a field that is getting thinned out of its seeds. Of the eight seeded players, only half remain after two rounds. Mardy Fish (No. 6) lost in the first round Wednesday, and Sijsling, Yen-Hsun Lu (No. 5) and Evgeny Donskoy (No. 8) all lost in second-round matches Thursday.
“James is a player, if he gets the smallest bit of confidence on his side, he can be super tough,” Isner said. “He’s really not that far removed from being No. 4 in the world.”
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