Italy is hardly known for its men's tennis, but the hometown fans at the Rome Masters were treated to a great men's match today, as Italian #1 Andreas Seppi stunned top-ranked American John Isner in three tough sets. On paper, the win may not look like a huge upset, as Isner and Seppi are only separated by 20 places in the world rankings. But after Isner jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first set, with the struggling Seppi managing to win only three points during that time, it looked as if the ninth-seeded American would cruise to an easy victory. What followed was a dramatic display that proved a match is never over until the final ball is played.
Seppi managed to get on the board at the end of the first set, but Isner claimed a 6-2 victory after facing only one break point deficit. The second set seemed to be a formality, as Isner defended his serve easily, while forcing his opponent to play long and tightly contested service games. Toward the end of the second set, Seppi's confidence rose, and he began to hold serve more easily, even managing to out-ace Isner in the set by a count of 6 to 5. Still, heading into a tiebreak at a set down, it seemed unlikely that the 28-year-old Italian would have much of a chance against a player with one of the best tiebreak records on the ATP Tour over the last several years.
Throughout the match, there was one variable that may have made a difference: the spirited Italian crowd. Even when their man appeared down and out, struggling to scrape by on serve in the second set, the fans continued to roar at every point Seppi won, never giving up hope, and keeping the intimate Pietrangeli grandstand filled to capacity. After the Italian managed to pull out the second-set tiebreak at 7-5, the crowd's energy picked up even further, as it was clear an intense final set was on the horizon.
The third set played out much like the second, although this time it was Isner who struggled to hold serve, while Seppi confortably won his service games. The turning point of the match was a 2-all Isner service game, in which the big man was forced to save seven points before finally grabbing the game. Although Seppi could've easily been let down by the missed opportunities, he instead found his best form of the match, clocking forehand winners repeatedly and improving his return game. Isner found himself unable to put Seppi's serves in play, as the Italian lost just four points on serve in the set.
After gaining a 40-0 lead on Isner's serve at 5-all, Seppi converted the last of his three break points and served for the match. Although the Italian has been notoriously tight in pressure situations, he came up big in the final game, carving a deft drop volley winner to earn two match points. On the next point, Isner buried a forehand in the net, and the match belonged to Seppi after two hours and 50 minutes of play.
It was a big win for the Italian, who was visibly emotional after the match. Although Seppi has consistently hovered around the middle of the top 100 for years, he has quietly amassed a impressive record on the ATP Tour over the past year, including a title in Eastbourne in June of last year, and a title over a weak field in Belgrade two weeks ago. He goes on to face Stanislas Wawrinka in a winnable third-round match.
Isner, meanwhile, must be disappointed to have lost a match that was well within his grasp. He did well to pull through after a near-loss to Phillipp Kohlschreiber in round one, and will now have his sights on a deep run at Roland Garros.