The Isner Effect


61485459For a guy who has yet to sniff the top 10, John Isner has sure made his imposing, 6-foot-9 presence known among his elite ATP colleagues. In his brief four-year pro career, the 26-year-old former Bulldog, a four-time All-American ('04-'07) who remains the University of Georgia's all-time leader in singles and doubles wins, has played some big-time ball in some big-time moments.

In '09, the power server smacked 38 aces in scoring a drama-filled 7-6(3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6(5) third-round shocker over his pal Andy Roddick in Flushing Meadows — a match he called “hands down, the biggest win of my career. Nothing even compares.” But he soon had something to compare it to. The following summer, he all but re-authored the Wimbledon record books with a 70-68-in-the-fifth first-round triumph for the ages over hard-luck Frenchman Nicolas Mahut — an epic saga that stretched over three days (the fifth set alone took 8 hours, 11 minutes) and included 138 games, 215 aces, 2,198 shots, 489 backhands, 380 towel-offs, etc. It's a match that will be talked about for decades to come, and one that had folks second-guessing the absence of a fifth-set tiebreak at the All England Club. Earlier this year, Isner let a two-sets-to-love advantage slip away in a gut-wrenching 6-7(5), 6-7(2), 7-6(3), 7-6(5), 6-4 loss to Paul Capdeville, but made good in the reverse singles with a confidence-building fifth-rubber (albeit a dead one) 6-3, 6-7(4), 7-5 decision over Guillermo Rivera-Aranguiz as the U.S. overcame host Chile in Davis Cup play.

The Craig Boynton-coached American with the size 15 shoes might seem out of his element on red clay, especially at Roland Garros, The House That Rafa Built, which ESPN's Greg Garber appropriately nicknamed “the world's largest and most famous sandbox.” After all, this isn't a place for a so-called one-stroke-wonder, a spindly-legged hard-courter who relies on free points from the service stripe and doesn't exactly cover the court with Federerian grace. But the big man refused to be typecast at the 2011 French Open, turning in yet another big-stakes performance by pushing Rafael Nadal to a place he had never before ventured: a fifth set on a stage upon which he had won five of the last six titles. The Spaniard would eventually prevail in the first-round encounter 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-4, but the American's effort did not go unnoticed. Isner may just be the quintessential dangerous floater; a guy who no one wants to see their name next to in the draw.

Yes, even on clay.

“Always it's [a] very, very close match against John because with his serve he arrives to the tiebreak and you play under pressure all the time,” said Nadal.

The question is can Isner crank-up his return game, play with some consistency and find himself deep into the second week of a major? (He has yet to reach a Slam quarterfinal.)

“For John, the big thing is his return,” notes ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert.  “He's got a monster serve.  He just doesn't return well enough yet.  If he can add that or improve that part of his game, there’s no reason why he should be ranked No. 50 in the world.  His serve is outrageous.  To me he should be a top-20 player. “

At 26, one would expect him to feel some sense of urgency. But Isner says his best days are ahead.

“I didn't really tell myself, 'This is the year I will break into the top 10' or whatnot. Last year, I had a great year, and I still think my best tennis is three, four years ahead of me,” said Isner, currently ranked No. 45. “That's just how I feel. It's just going to take time. I have always been a late developer.”