With Andy Roddick’s announcement that he would retire from tennis after the 2012 U.S. Open, American men’s tennis seemed in a world of trouble. With no heir apparent, the mantle of top U.S. dog found itself alone on the broad shoulders of a lanky giant. John Isner was not unknown, but perhaps his most famous moment was the longest professional match in history against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. Suddenly, by default, Isner found himself in the most prominent position of his career, not by some personal victory, but by another player’s career decision.
Isner was a late bloomer. He didn’t turn pro in his teens, forgoing the circuit for a four year career at the University of Georgia. As a Bulldog, Isner was an All-American and a national champion, but collegiate success does not generally lend itself to a hyper-successful pro career. However, Isner has one thing that most tennis players – pro or not – don’t have: a 6’10” frame.
Currently the second tallest player on tour (Ivo Karlovic is 2cm taller), Isner has turned that height into perhaps the best serve in the game today. The pace and angles that his height affords has made for a relatively simple style of play: serve big and hope your forehand creates some break opportunities.
That recipe has made him a staple in the Top 25, and even allowed a brief time in the Top 10. But though the height and frame makes his serve great, to this point in his career it has stymied the growth of the rest of his game. Because of the massive talent on the tour, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and the rest, Isner has been exposed at times, being forced to lumber around the court.
Isner’s matches offer an interesting juxtaposition, both tactically and physically. His prowess on serve combined with his struggles in the return game leads to a lot of holds on both sides. The marathon match against Mahut was actually just an exaggeration of the rule, not the exception, for Isner. The drawn out play takes more of a toll on the big fella that it does on most of his opponents, and because Isner is so attuned to his strengths and weaknesses, the matches become even further exaggerated the longer they play out: Isner putting his energy in his serves, and then conserving it on returns.
To this point, that style has allowed Isner to pull off some huge upsets, while too often falling to some lesser opponents. This past week in Cincinnati demonstrated why he can compete with the best, and even with his fantastic play illustrated some of the weaknesses of the power game.
A three day run of beating Top 10 players is impressive. When one of those players is Djokovic, it makes it all the more so. Isner did that this week thanks to that big serve and some timely forehands. And what did he get rewarded with? That would be a date with the scorching hot Rafael Nadal. Isner played about as well as he could today. He didn’t face a single break point in the match, but eventually lost in both tie breaks. Though he played well, the match was a nut-shell for Isner. He didnt have many chances, and Nadal’s well rounded game saw most prolonged rallies fall the Spaniard’s way. But Nadal was also almost hopeless on Isner’s serve. With a few minor improvements to his ground game and court movement (easier said than done considering his size), Isner probably would have taken this match, and the Western and Southern title along with it.
With those adjustments there is no reason Isner should not be a fixture in the Top 10 himself. His serve and forehand give him the ability to go on impressive streaks. At this point it’s about limiting the dips in energy and focus that make him susceptible. After a tough first half of the season that saw Isner deal with the injury bug, the big man has put himself in a great position heading into the U.S. Open next week. Realistically a semi-final birth would be more than even Isner could hope for, but if he serves big and is aggressive on the returns it is very concievable that result is in his future. He will never be as good as Roddick maybe, and won’t challenge for a number one ranking anytime soon, but for Isner and his simple power, the big boy title in U.S. tennis is a mantle he deserves in every way.
Seven of the fourteen sets Isner played this week went to a tiebreak.
Isner defeated Raonic, Djokovic, and Del Potro in consecutive days.
With his runner-up finish, Isner rises to fourteenth in the world and receives a top sixteen seeding for the Open.