By PJ Yeong
Current ATP Rank: 10
Born: Greensboro, North Carolina, US
Resides: Tampa, Florida, US
Best Known For: Wimbledon 2010, record-breaking first round marathon vs Nicolas Mahut.
Career Titles: 3
The United States of America wants a Grand Slam men’s singles Champion. It has been over 8 years since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003 – and America has constantly been on the search to brand upcoming players as the “next big thing” to win a Slam (and hoping fervently that they do). Sam Querrey, Robert Kendrick, Ryan Sweeting are the few players that has been in the discussion. Ryan Harrison, the current “It” American youngster, is definitely feeling the weight of a nation’s hope. But before Harrison’s eventual coming-of-age, there is one American player that has the potential to rise and surprise us all. And his name is John Isner.
A Little History
Most pro-tennis players choose to devote themselves to the sport from an early age – thriving in the junior circuit as young teenagers before moving onto the senior tour. Isner chose a route vastly different from his colleagues. As a junior, he had a good resume: winning singles and doubles titles in the USTA National Championships (for his age group). However, even as he flirted with the idea of turning pro after high school, Isner eventually stuck to his plan of playing collegiate tennis, at the University of Georgia (where he chose to study speech communication). He led the team, the Bulldogs, to win NCAA Championships in 2007.
Isner turned professional soon after, at the considerably “old” age of 22. With a ranking of #839, he was highly dependent on wildcards to enter tournaments. He had incredible run in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, where he entered as a wildcard and beat 5 top 100 players to reach the final (losing to Andy Roddick). He surged to the top 200 (#196), after a mere 6 weeks on the pro tour. This earned him a wildcard to the US Open and he made his Grand Slam debut, where he reached the third round. He lost to eventual champion Roger Federer, but not before taking a set off his opponent (that would be the only set Federer would lose throughout the tournament).
His impressive burst into the pro tour sparked much excitement and discussion. In subsequent years, Isner managed to make his presence on the tour felt – with his 6”9 frame and his powerful, booming serves, but unfortunately, he did not reach the heights of the expectations. He recorded performances consistent enough to eventually break into the top 20 in 2010 – the same year the names John Isner and Nicolas Mahut achieved world-wide recognition for their 11 hour and 5 minutes first round match at the Wimbledon – a world record that possibly would never be broken. Isner won the historic match, but understandably lost his next match.
Isner achieved a career-high ranking of #18 in 2011, after a relatively strong year where he reached the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time.
Isner made himself a popular topic of tennis conversation early on in 2012, when he battled and defeated David Nalbandian in a classic 5-setter in the second round of the Australian Open, in a dramatic match involving tie-breakers, momentum swings, controversial umpiring decisions and a final score of 10-8 in the 5th set. He lost to Feliciano Lopez in another 5-setter in the next round.
He then headed to Switzerland with the rest of the US Davis Cup team, where they would play Switzerland, in a team heralded by world #3 Federer. Against a home crowd, on a surface (indoor clay) that favoured his more fancied opponent, Isner did the impossible: he beat Federer in 4 sets for the biggest win of his career (US would go on to win the tie 5-0).
The talk and the buzzing began anew – will Isner be the one to bring glory again to American tennis? But if greater things were to come, they didn’t materialise immediately. As the top seed in his subsequent tournaments, Isner failed to advance far, losing in 3rd round in Memphis, and in the semi-finals at Delray Beach. However, in the first Masters 1000 of the year – Indian Wells – his game and form picked up. After dismissing Gilles Simon in three sets, he entered his second Masters semi-final, where he faced Novak Djokovic.
It wasn’t a match where Isner was expected to win. Yes, he has an incredible serve, but the reigning world #1 is one of the best returners on tour. But on that day, Isner displayed an amazing show of serving, and played attacking tennis to pull off the stunning upset. His mental strength, that had helped him prevail in numerous 5-setters in Grand Slams, was in full presence as he finished the match with an ace (and after Djokovic had saved two match points).
Isner was in his first Masters final, and the man he would have to beat for the title was the same man he had beaten a mere month ago, Roger Federer. Unfortunately, he could not repeat his feat. He managed to push Federer in a first-set tiebreaker but the Swiss held off his challenge easily in the next set, prevailing in a straight sets victory. It was a runner-up finish, but undoubtedly one of the best weeks in his career where he had showcased some of his best tennis. That, in itself, has been quite inspiring.
Isner wanted to be known for something more, something greater, than just a world record. This may be the year where he scales greater heights. His run in Indian Wells sees him entering the Top 10 for the first time in his career, at the age of 26. A late bloomer? Yes, by his own admission. Can he overtake the mantle of the Grand Slam Champion from Roddick? Yes, he thinks he can. And to be honest – there’s nothing delusional about that claim.
1) Isner and Mahut – linked together forever via history – forged a close friendship after the Wimbledon match. They texted each other, spoke on the phone often, and even made plans to practice together – plans that fell through after they were drawn to play each other again in an immediate Wimbledon rematch (Isner sent a frowny-face text to Mahut soon after the draw was revealed).
2) As expected – Isner holds the record for most aces served in a match: 113 aces, during his Wimbledon 2010 marathon.
3) The name “Isner” is almost synonymous with “5-setters”. Aside from the Wimbledon epic, he was also the first player to stretch Rafael Nadal to 5 sets at the 2011 French Open, at one point leading the Spaniard 2-sets-to-1. Other famous 5-setters includes his 2009 US Open win over Roddick, and this year’s tussle with Nalbandian at the Australian Open.
3) Isner’s segment on The Late Show with David Letterman is one of the best things that ever happened on that show – at least for us tennis fans.
4) He forms a good camaraderie with the rest of the American tennis players – Isner trains alongside Mardy Fish, James Blake and co at Saddlebrook, Florida. He frequently plays doubles with Sam Querrey (they reached the men’s doubles final at the recently concluded Indian Wells, losing to the Spanish pair of Rafael Nadal/Marc Lopez).
5) We might see him in the commentator’s booth after the end of his career – he has expressed an interest in sports broadcasting.
6) As of date, Isner remains the only player in the top 150 to have attended 4 years of college.
What the Fans Are Saying …
Some words from Isner’s fans from the Twitter univers
Valerie likes the fact that Isner is not the “typical” brash American tennis player:
“Because he’s a male American tennis player that actually doesn’t act like an a**hole. I also appreciate his hard work and his spirit after that Wimbledon match.”
Tru welcomes the Isner calm:
“I like his temperament. It’s the same, win or lose. Even if you’re not supporting him, it’s hard to root against him.”
Nina echoes the sentiments about his demeanour:
“I’m excited to have another American in the top 10, and have someone with manners to represent the US. He seems to be genuinely nice and humble, and I love that he attended college and has a degree. His serve (is impressive) – and he’s a big guy who can volley, who doesn’t love that? Also, he has got Murray beaten at the “oh f***, I’m about to die” look.”
(Nina also adds that Isner’s boyish good looks helps in her appreciation for him!)
Isner’s academic resume also impresses Arlene:
“He’s one of the rare tennis players that actually went to college, which I love. I also love how he doesn’t let the occasion get to him. Calm, collected, ice water in his veins, doesn’t matter who he’s playing, he’s a cool customer. And oh, his big serve.”
Arkulari likes his work ethic:
“He started with club-level ground strokes and a great serve – worked hard and now his forehand is a real weapon (although his backhand still needs work). And he’s a nice guy, not many American players are as chill as he is!”
Mithi likes the fighting spirit:
“(I like) his resilience. He has a new-found ability to play to the last point, which is wonderful to see from an American player after Roddick. He is also one of the very few guys, where there is a smile in his game that shows you how much fun he is having.”
Roger Federer – The Swiss has had a rather extraordinary week. He entered the tournament fighting a flu/virus, unable to practise for long stretches, and even considered withdrawing from the tournament. Yet, he defied all the odds. He staged impressive comebacks against youngsters Milos Raonic and Thomaz Bellucci. He dismissed his storied rivals Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in style before capturing the title – becoming the first man to win the tournament 4 times. The average age of the 30-year-old Federer’s opponents was 23 (thank you @shackle52!) – proving age is really just a number, and a statistic, alongside his numerous titles, records and achievements.
Ana Ivanovic – It might not be far-fetched to say some of Ivanovic’s winning form from Roland Garros 2008 showed itself last week at Indian Wells. She defeated consecutive top-10 opponents Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli in convincing straight sets, showing none of the mental fragility and erratic game that often plagued her. Unfortunately, an inflammation in her left glute muscle forced her to retire against Maria Sharapova, ending her run. But cleared to play in Miami, it would be interesting to see if Ivanovic can continue her current form.
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)