Jake of all Trades: How Good Is John Isner?

To say American tennis is in a rut is like complaining that the Republican primary “race” has become interminable — it’s tired, obvious and absolutely true.

The last American man to win a major title was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open, a full 34 majors ago. The last American woman who is not a Williams sister to claim a Grand Slam was Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open — 41 majors ago. No American is in the top five on either tour. The few players that have contended on even a semi-regular basis are too old (Roddick, Mardy Fish), too young (Donald Young, Ryan Harrison, potential flash-in-the-pan Melanie Oudin) or just don’t care (Venus and Serena).

Then there’s John Isner. And after a six month-period of consistent but limited success as a top player on tour, he still defies prediction.

Isner, 26, is ranked 10th in the world as of Monday after reaching his first final in the ATP’s Masters 1000 series (the nine tournaments a cut below the Grand Slams). He’s most famous for his 11-hour, record-shattering, blogmania-inducing win over Nicholas Mahut in the first round of Wimbledon 2010, when he won 70-68 in the fifth set. No, that’s not a misprint. They actually played 138 games in the final set, which took nine hours over two days.

The unfortunate side effect of Isner’s marathon triumph is that few casual fans know him for what he really is: the most intriguing and entertaining American tennis player of either sex right now (sorry Serena, but you have to care about the tennis you play for people to care about you). Standing an imposing 6’9″, Isner has arguably the scariest serve on the men’s tour, a 135-145 mph laser that skids on grass and bounces high on hard courts. Though his footwork his clunky and his backhand is often painfully awkward, Isner’s serve makes him a threat to beat anyone, anytime.

The omnipresent danger of Isner’s serve was on display at last year’s French Open, when he took clay-court demigod Rafael Nadal to five sets in the first round, akin to hanging with Secretariat until the last furlong of the Belmont Stakes. It was on display at the Davis Cup in February, when he knocked off Roger Federer to lead the U.S. team to a stunning early-round upset. ¬†And it was certainly on display Saturday, when he shocked Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells, Calif.

After Isner became the first American to knock off Djokovic since he began his 15-month-and-counting hot streak, the Serbian told reporters that even he was checking the courtside display to see how fast Isner was serving.

Of course, tennis is littered with big servers like Ivo Karlovic who couldn’t leverage that talent into sustained success. And though Isner is becoming more comfortable at net, he looks lost when trading groundstrokes with the game’s best.

In Sunday’s final against Federer, Isner found himself in that uncomfortable position far too many times. Though Isner tried to keep the rallies short and use his forehand to pin Federer behind the baseline, he was pretty much cooked if a rally went more than 10 strokes. Using his legendary array of slices, drop shots, and impossibly angled groundstrokes, Fed kept Isner guessing and dictated the bulk of the match despite Isner’s superb serving.

As Isner’s matches so often do, the contest came down to a tiebreak. Both players trades mini-breaks in an increasingly desperate attempt to lock down the all-important first set. At 7-7, Isner hit a powerful serve-forehand combination and came to net, forcing Federer to attempt a looping, slightly mishit passing shot. The American began to reach up for a difficult backhand stab volley, hesitated, and let his arm fall to his side as he helplessly watched the ball drop on the baseline for a winner. Federer won the next point to claim the set, and in effect the match.

That Isner chose to eschew a tough volley and cross his fingers that Fed’s shot would go long (a 50-50 probability in the moment) is a sobering sign. The best players in the world, the Nadals and Federers and Del Potros and Tsongas, do not leave big points up to capricious winds and the symbolic flip of a coin. They try for the high-risk, high-reward shot, and more often than not they make it. I don’t know if Isner has the talent to be a top-10 mainstay, but I do know he’ll have to take ownership of his biggest points and matches to have any chance.

As Federer ground Isner down in the second set, I found myself searching for a recent player whose success Isner could hope to match. Though there have been a ton of big-serving stars in the last 20 years from Pete Sampras on down, there aren’t many who rely almost entirely on their serve. The best I could come up with was Goran Ivanisevic, the 6’4″ Serbian lefty who lost three Wimbledon finals before finally breaking through as a wild card entry in the 2001 Wimbledon. Like Isner, Goran had a monster serve but struggled to move around the baseline and play sustained groundstroke rallies. And like Goran, Isner has the kind of serve that could win him a non-French Open major if he serves at 140 mph and makes 70% of his first serves for two weeks.

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