Isner the latest (and last) to go

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LONDON -- It's as if they were created solely to play their games on grass.

Feliciano Lopez, a long, lithe Spaniard, moves like a cat on the lawns of the All England Club; his charging half-volleys are exquisite. When John Isner's screaming serves hit the green surface, they skid low and far and, quite often, elude opponents' rackets altogether.

On Monday, the players collided in a third-round match that, because of rain, never took place Saturday. It was well worth the wait because, despite their contrasting styles, they were an almost perfect matchup.

Lopez's and Isner's serves were so dominant that they went 46 games without a service break -- and then Lopez broke through in the 47th. He backed up a terrific return with a forehand that whistled past an approaching Isner and landed just inside the sideline. Lopez, understanding the significance of the moment, leaped into the air and executed an enthusiastic scissor kick accompanied by a monstrous fist pump.

Lopez was still beaming, arms outstretched, when the Court 3 crowd gave him a standing ovation after his 6-7 (8), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3), 7-5 victory.

With the withdrawal of Madison Keys earlier in the day, Isner was the last American of either gender to depart the main singles draw. Thus, there are no United States representatives in the fourth round -- the first time in the Open era, which extends back to 1968, that Wimbledon has been without a U.S. player in the fourth round of either singles draw. The same thing happened three years ago at the French Open.

Isner -- who conceded that grass should be the surface that rewards his game the most -- had never been past the second round here. Wimbledon remains the only major in which he has failed to reach the fourth round or second week -- although he was actually playing in the second week because rain pushed it there.

"I knew it was going be like this," Lopez said as he studied the statistics sheet. "I knew there would be a lot of aces, lot of tiebreakers. Luckily, I made it."

Lopez, who is also playing doubles here with  Jurgen Melzer, has to get right back to it Tuesday. He will face No. 5 seed Stan Wawrinka in a fourth-round match.

Isner won the serving battle but lost the war; he stroked a tournament-high 52 aces, 18 more than Lopez, but surrendered that one break point. Overall, Isner had 80 winners and 27 unforced errors, but Lopez (55 and 10) was more efficient.

These powerful players were slashing at each other so furiously that only a dozen of 298 points lasted beyond eight strokes.

When peers meet at this elite level, often it is only a couple of points that separate them. This is especially true of tiebreakers, where an entire set can hang on a single stroke.

Isner, because his serve is so dominant and his return game something less, plays more tiebreakers than anyone -- 39 so far this year. Isner played and won two tiebreakers in his second-round match against Jarkko Nieminen but won only one of three against Lopez.

The critical juncture, after a 90-minute rain delay, was the third-set session, when Lopez won both of Isner's first two serves and looked far stronger in closing it out. When one last forehand volley from Isner sailed well wide, you got the idea that he might be packing soon.

Isner will always be remembered for the three-day feast of tennis he produced here four years ago against Nicolas Mahut. It ran more than 11 hours and comprised 183 games. This year, Isner's contribution to the record books was more modest. He threw in a 19-17 tiebreaker against Nieminen, the second-longest in Wimbledon's 128-year history.

Lopez, however, has produced the best results of his career here at the All England Club. A win over Wawrinka -- which is not a stretch given how well the Spaniard is playing -- would send Lopez into the fourth quarterfinal of his 29-12 Wimbledon career. He has never been past the fourth round of the other three.

The Spaniard is also coming off his second consecutive on the grass title at Eastbourne and has won seven straight matches on grass and 12 of his past 13. He's also held serve for 48 consecutive games, going back to the first round. The way he moves so freely on the living surface makes it easy to forget that he's 32 -- the same age as Roger Federer.

Lopez said that Isner's height creates unprecedented angles for his serve -- Lopez called it the best in the game -- and that his percentage is unnaturally high for someone who hits it so hard. Isner also sometimes hits his second serve nearly as hard as the first.

"To beat Johnny on that court is such a difficult task," Lopez said. "When you go through a difficult match like this, you have to be proud of yourself."

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