By Mark Poulose
KEY BISCAYNE - Saturday afternoon fared well for the top-ranked American men in the draw at the Miami Open, with John Isner and Jack Sock each picking up routine victories in the tournament’s second round.
Isner, seeded 22nd and the highest ranked American man, defeated 17-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-4, while Sock defeated 21-seed Italian Fabio Fognini 7-6, 6-1.
Rublev, who beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the first round, is the third youngest player to ever win a tournament match at Miami, behind only “The Magician” Fabrice Santoro and tennis legend Boris Becker.
“It’s different [playing a young opponent] but he is very talented,” said Isner following the match. “I knew it was a match I needed to be focused. I needed to come out ready to play because he’s a talented, very talented kid… It was a tough match.”
On Saturday against the 17-year-old, Isner relied on his well-versed game plan: power serving and forehand attacks.
“Game plans for me are not that important. It’s just me taking care of what I need to do on my side of the net,” Isner said. “My game is a lot different than everyone else’s. It’s not rocket science… I don’t focus too much on what my opponent does or doesn’t do so well.”
Rublev proved no match for the tried-and-tested tactics of the monstrous 6-10 Isner, who won 27 of 28 points on his first serve, and a staggering 87% of points while serving. Isner’s secondary service attack, his kick serve, often bounced above the shoulder level of his 17-year-old adversary, and granted him free throughout the match. Isner converted 72% of his second serve points.
The win put Isner in the tournament’s third round and leveled his season record at 6-6. The 2015 season has not been kind to Isner, or his ranking. Before a fourth round exit at Indian Wells last week, Isner endured a four-match losing streak, including a loss in the first round at Delray Beach and two losses in Davis Cup play.
“I’m starting to play better,” Isner said. “I’m not really focused on my ranking. I’m worried about how I’m playing, and I’m definitely starting to play better.”
For Rublev, it was a remarkable showing for an ATP tour neophyte who has just three tour-level victories. Rublev, however, boasts four Futures titles to his name, and is currently the number one ranked junior according to the ITF. He is also the defending French Open junior champion.
22-year-old American Jack Sock also advanced to the third round Saturday, needing just 78 minutes to best Fabio Fognini. It was the first tour meeting between the two.
Sock invokes a style typical of an American tennis player, employing a large serve and a big forehand. Fognini, a clay court specialist, could not adjust to the playing style of Sock after competing with the aggressive American early on, and quickly lost in straight sets.
To close out the second set and the match, Sock won five straight games and broke Fognini twice. Sock’s pace and power proved to be too dominant of a combination for the 27-year-old dirt-baller to overcome.
Sock, the first four-time state champion in Kansas’s high school tennis history, has emerged as a competitive tour level player and possible future leader of American tennis in his fourth year on tour. During the 2014 season, Sock saw his ranking rise more than 50 spots and finished in the top 50 for the first time in his professional career. Currently ranked 45th, Sock is the youngest American in the top 50.
“There’s a group of us now inside the top 50 and a couple of guys inside the top-100 that are trying to make the push. It’s a process, and people know that. You’re not going to come out your first two, three years and break into the Top-10,” Sock said.
“Obviously, [the] U.S. has a high expectation, which is fine… We’re putting in the work. We’re doing our best. And, in time, hopefully it will pay off.”