John Isner returns a shot during his victory over Gilles Simon at the BNP… (Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images )
John Isner, all 6 feet 9 of him, had a tall order Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament. He was the last man standing, of sorts.
All the other U.S. singles players, male and female, had headed elsewhere. The top-seeded U.S. men's player, Mardy Fish at No. 8, had been ousted. On the women's side, with the Williams sisters holding fast to their boycott of this event, there was nothing red, white and blue left.
So that left it to Isner, seeded No. 11. A victory would put him into his first Indian Wells semifinals. A defeat would simply further the theory that a tennis player cannot live on one shot alone — in Isner's case, a huge serve.
A packed house, becoming the norm here even in the night matches now, showed up to see whether their guy was up to it; also to do a little verbal flag-waving. This was tennis prime time, and nobody was quite sure whether Isner was ready for it.
The 26-year-old, who built a pro career through the unusual path of college tennis, did not disappoint.
Playing a pesky Frenchman, No. 13 Gilles Simon, Isner exploded just enough service bombs and remained steady just enough from the baseline to prevail, 6-3, 1-6, 7-5. Isner and Simon held serve to 5-6 of the final set, and when Isner got his first match point at 15-40, he got his return deep and Simon hit long.
"This was my first match this year on this [Stadium] court," Isner said afterward, "so it took a little adjusting for both of us. But the fans got me through. They were awesome. Tonight, I didn't get frustrated."
Isner will get a day's rest from singles and then play No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Talk about prime time.
"I'll have to take my chances and serve well," Isner said. "It will be one of the biggest matches I'll ever play."
The side of the bracket opposite Isner and Djokovic has some interesting history, and it will play out Friday afternoon.
Roger Federer will play Juan Martin del Potro in the 1 p.m. match, and it is unlikely that Federer has completely forgotten his 2009 U.S. Open singles final against the 6-6 Argentine. Federer was still pretty much king of the game then, and would finish the season No. 1.
He was looking for his 16th Grand Slam title — he would get it at the next major in Australia in 2010 — and he was cruising along against Del Potro, two sets to one, and up, 6-5, in the fourth set when it all sort of unraveled. Del Potro survived the fourth set in a tiebreaker, his second successful tiebreaker in the match, and started hitting forehands like Nolan Ryan used to throw fastballs.
Federer went away quietly in the final set at 6-2, and when it was over, he had made 62 unforced errors and was later fined for cursing out chair umpire Jake Garner during a changeover.
Immediately following Federer and Del Potro will be Rafael Nadal against David Nalbandian. Nalbandian, an Argentine forerunner to Del Potro, has been on the tour since 2001 and is 30. His ranking wasn't high enough to get him into Indian Wells, so the tournament officials smartly gave him a wild card.
In 2009, in a round-of-16 match at Indian Wells, Nadal and Nalbandian battled 2 hours 55 minutes and didn't finish until shortly after 2 a.m.