By Bill Simons
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”—Mahatma Gandhi
It used to be said that John McEnroe is a jerk, but at least he’s our jerk.
Well, John Isner may have never gotten past the quarterfinals of a Slam. He may never hoist a Slam trophy high. He doesn’t move with grace or lightning speed, and his wins over the very best are rare.
Still he’s our guy, my guy.
In the barren landscape that is American men’s tennis, John not only is our tallest tree, he’s our only tall tree—the only American in the top 60.
Of course, at 6′ 10,” amidst the lineage of American No. 1s, he is the tallest. Unfortunately, compared to Connors, McEnroe, Martin, Chang, Courier, Sampras, Agassi, Roddick, and Blake, his resume is undersized. Yes, he was the hero of that three-day Wimbledon marathon. He scored some memorable Davis Cup heroics in France and Switzerland, and his new nickname, “Johnny Tiebreak,” has a ring.
But, for all his height, for all the ferocity of his forehand, and despite having a thunderous serve that often is but a blur, Isner has yet to really break through to the upper echelon of the game that gets so much of our love.
America hungers for Grand Slam winners, but for 11 lean years, our men have not been able to feed that craving. Could Isner do that? That’s probably too big an ask for the big man, who some feel has already performed beyond expectations. But here at Roland Garros, he became the first American man to make the fourth round of a Slam since 2012, when Andy Roddick reached the same mark at the US Open.
Yes, Isner, now 29 (the same age when Roddick retired), has won a lot: in college, where he was the NCAA runner-up; in Davis Cup, where he’s worn the hero’s mantle; and on the tour, where he’s claimed 11 titles, from his beloved Winston-Salem and Atlanta to far-off Auckland this January. He has massive weapons. He’s experienced, professional, and can come up big at clutch time. Plus, he cares. He’ll holler when he misses a rally forehand, or just put his hands on his considerable hips, or snap his Prince racket in half as if it were a toothpick.
All the while, his downsides are clear. Primarily, he’s faced with a lack of mobility and quickness which often leaves the court open and makes him a fairly easy target at net. Plus, there are issues relating to consistency, a backhand that can’t do that much damage, he’s endured some unhappy injuries, and he candidly admits that he is not comfortable playing outside of North America. After his dramatic US Open match against Gael Monfils last summer in New York, he tweeted, “I miss the South. #godscountry.”
Although in January Isner said he really didn’t care how the other Americans are doing, he is candid about the plight of American men’s tennis.”There is only one player in the top 50 [actually top 60] … for America right now, and that’s pretty bad,” Isner told IT. “So you guys [in the media] should talk about that. I have always said that there are some guys coming up that are very good … especially guy[s] like Jack [Sock].” He concedes that coaches Jose Higueras and Jim Courier have “a pretty good point” when they are critical of the work ethic of America’s young players.
After his quick and dreary 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in the fourth round here, we asked John what he’s most proud of in his seven-year career. He said, “I’ve been pretty consistent, consistently good, which came as a surprise, actually. What I’ve done in the last four years I’ve been pretty happy about. Looks like I’m doing that again this year. But the thing that is really disappointing is [that] it’s tough to get into that next level, that next level being guys like that dude over there in the press conference. [He points to Berdych in the main interview room.] I’m going to keep working … Luckily, I feel good. Even though I’m 29, I feel like I have a lot of good years ahead … [I’m] just very lucky to do this. Hopefully, I can do it as much as I can.”
So, we asked, what is the key to getting there? He replied, “In a match like today, [I] just have to have play better. Simple as that. I believe I have it. [Today] I was just beaten by a better player … He was too good.”
Finally, we asked John, if he could change anything in his career, what would it be? “Probably a few things here or there,” he replied. “But nothing really significant”
Ah, there it is, that killjoy phrase that has long haunted American tennis: Nothing really significant.
These days—and forever—”nothing in significant” hasn’t cut it among demanding American fans, who set the bar so high: 6′ 10″ high.