In his first match since winning the Miami Masters, John Isner faces off against Henri Laaksonen at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston. Isner, who won the title in Houston five years ago, has traditionally always played well on home soil, so will be looking for a good week in Texas before tennis returns to Europe. Laaksonen, the Swiss #3, gained a reputation for a lack of work ethic early in his career, but has been putting that behind him in recent years with some respectable results. But who will win this one?
Isner and Laaksonen have met once previously in their careers. That match came last year in the Davis Cup first round when the United States hosted Switzerland in Alabama. After Jack Sock had won the first rubber in convincing style, Isner had the chance to give the US a commanding lead against Laaksonen. Surprisingly, however, it was Laaksonen who took the first set, six games to four. But thereafter Isner was able to assert himself and he won in four, 4-6 6-2 6-2 7-6.
Path to the second round
Isner, the world’s ninth best and top seed in Houston, received a first round bye and so has not yet taken to the court in Houston. Laaksonen, the world #143, began his tournament against the German showman, Dustin Brown in the first round. Brown has some impressive wins to his name, including two against Nadal, the second of which came on the hallowed lawns of Centre Court. However, his game is ill-suited to clay, and he was overpowered by Laaksonen in a 4-6 3-6 loss.
How do they match up?
Despite the often true assumption that big servers and Americans don’t enjoy the clay, Isner’s game is well-suited to the red dirt. He’s had some fine results on clay over the course of his career. He is one of only two men to have pushed the great Rafael Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros, the other being the second best clay courter of this generation, Novak Djokovic. He also made the semifinals in Rome last year, losing to eventual champion Alexander Zverev in three sets.
The reason he plays well on the clay is that it gives him time to wind up his powerful groundstrokes. And when he has time, he can do serious damage, particularly with his forehand. His backhand is not much of a weapon, but whilst it looks vulnerable on faster surfaces, Isner is able to cut out a lot of mistakes by virtue of having more time on that wing. And his serve, the cornerstone of his game, is as dangerous on clay as it is anywhere, such is the venom with which he can hit it.
Laaksonen, like many European players, is most at home on clay. He doesn’t have Isner’s power, but is more mobile than the American giant. His groundstrokes are generally consistent, and the Swiss will likely look to move Isner around more than he tries to hit through him. His forehand, which he hits with heavy topspin, will be crucial for him if he wants to upset Isner. He will have to be prepared to take the game to Isner, as if he allows the world #9 to dominate from the back of the court, he will have little chance of victory.
Laaksonen impressed against Brown, but Isner is a different calibre of opposition and should have far too much for Laaksonen. It’s hard to see what answer Laaksonen will have for the Isner serve and forehand, and his baseline game should give Isner a good rhythm. If the American can find that rhythm then his power will be more than enough to send him into the quarterfinals in Houston. Isner in straight sets.
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