Andy Murray - 2011 US Open - Day 11

Isner vs. Murray:  Joining Tipsarevic in the ranks of Slam quarterfinal debutants here, Isner’s route to the last eight recalls Karlovic’s surge to a Wimbledon quarterfinal in 2009.  A titlist the week before the Open in Winston-Salem, this 26-year-old American may find his serve and first-strike power undermined by the experience of playing best-of-five matches on consecutive days after a summer filled with tense encounters.  Much less experienced than Murray at coping with fatigue, Isner previously has struggled to recover from protracted matches mentally as well as physically.  But his style of play adapts well to the tournament’s compressed format, for it favors many more abbreviated points than extended rallies.  Starkly in contrast, Murray plays a demanding style centered around movement, consistency, and versatility.  In this battle between Isaiah Berlin’s fox and hedgehog, the advantage will tilt distinctly towards the fourth seed if he can survive the first few blows from Isner’s racket.  A task easier said than done, corralling the American’s serve will test the limits of Murray’s return game with its towering bounces and unpredictable angles.  As with Karlovic’s serve, the Scot likely will make educated guesses and take calculated risks concerning its direction, then seek to step further inside the court to cut off the bounce before it jolts over him.

Equally significant is Murray’s own first-serve percentage, which has lain dangerously low throughout his career and exposed his only significant weakness, the second serve.  Since Isner will aim to crack penetrating returns off any second deliveries that he sees, the fourth seed should favor consistency over power in this encounter by denying his opponent short points whenever possible.  Not only will the longer rallies favor Murray’s more nuanced game, but he might chip away at the American’s stamina and competitive resilience by maneuvering him around the court.  Inclined to stay at the baseline rather than charge to the net behind his serve, Isner should maintain that strategic preference against an opponent who showcased his outstanding passing shots in a commanding victory over Lopez.  If one or more tiebreaks develop, as seems probable, the American’s depth of experience in that nerve-jangling genre should infuse him with confidence.  He won three tiebreaks from Simon to reach this stage and two tiebreaks from Nadal earlier this year.  In their only meeting to date, though, Murray managed to escape Isner when he served for the first set before outlasting him in a tiebreak and cruising thereafter.  Once again, the first set should play a pivotal role for the American as he enters Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time this year.  By gaining an early advantage, he can galvanize the crowd as he did in memorable encounters with Federer and Roddick on that court.  If Murray establishes his authority immediately, by contrast, the Scot’s suffocating impenetrability from the baseline should suck the energy out of the stadium.

Roddick vs. Nadal:  Featuring a pair of US Open champions, this more prestigious collision of the two quarterfinals should unfold in a manner similar to its predecessor.  Like his fellow American, Roddick possesses few advantage over his top-5 opponent except for his towering serve, which has grown less formidable with time, and his compatriot crowd, which should support him vociferously.  Placing few expectations upon himself when the tournament began, the 2003 champion surely has surpassed the form that he would have projected for himself.  After he avenged a Davis Cup defeat to Ferrer with a dominant four-set victory in the fourth round, his confidence should have soared to the height of a Manhattan skyscraper.  His own confidence faltering in recent weeks, on the other hand, Nadal has looked vulnerable during the early stages of the tournament, although he received from such early fallibility this year at Roland Garros to record his tenth major title.  More ominously, his comfortable triumph over Muller, including an emphatic tiebreak, displayed his return game, reflexes, and instincts at their finest against a relatively threatening server.  Those weapons have enabled him to defuse Roddick in the past much as Murray has defused Isner, Karlovic, and others.  Even when the American has maintained a solid first-serve percentage, Nadal has more often than not stabbed the ball back into play and outlasted him on the sport’s increasingly slow surfaces.  Like Murray, he will fancy his chances should the rallies extend beyond five or six shots, trusting in his superior consistency and movement to navigate through those points without undue exertion.

During their two meetings last year, however, Roddick broke free from the passive baseline (or far-behind-the-baseline) style that he has employed against less notable foes.  After a futile set in their Miami semifinal, he recognized that trading medium-pace groundstrokes from very long range would not allow him to penetrate Nadal’s defenses or rattle his nerves.  Accordingly, Roddick adjusted by flattening out his forehand, increasing his net approaches behind both first and second serves, amplifying his second serve, and swinging more assertively on his returns.  Against a Rafa reeling from his 2009 slump, these tactics bore fruit in a three-set victory.  Against a Rafa reinvigorated by three consecutive major titles, these tactics still brought Roddick within a tiebreak of victory at the year-end championships, albeit on the surface that perhaps most favors his strengths.  Nevertheless, that risk-embracing plan will grow harder to implement in a best-of-five format and at the majors where Nadal never succumbs without a titanic battle.  Although he has enjoyed an outstanding 2011 campaign by most standards, the defending champion has endured a series of Djokovic-induced disappointments that have forced his achievements below their familiar standards.  While Roddick hopes to salvage a year disappointing by any standard, Nadal also would relish the opportunity to reassert himself before the Slam season ends.  From both players, therefore, should spring an additional layer of intensity.