A Giant Retires – The Life and Times of John Isner

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Bill Simons

America loves big; big cars, big skies and big athletes. And American tennis loved big John Isner, who cast a huge shadow for almost two decades. The towering Carolina kid heroically prevailed in the longest match in tennis history – a marathon whose length and wonder will never be equaled and changed the tennis rule book. 

Some players’ careers go under the radar, but Paul Annacone noted, “Isner is over the radar.”

Now, after the US Open, the beloved giant will step aside. 

At 6’ 10½” he might well have been an NBA player or a tight end in the NFL. Instead, he literally raised the bar and redefined the game. Before John played, 6’ 6” players were considered gigantic. Now, 6’ 6” is the new 6’ 2”.

Most sports have key elements. In baseball, a good pitcher is critical. NFL teams build their franchises around their quarterback. In tennis, everything starts with the serve. Recently when Inside Tennis surveyed the field, the consensus was clear: the Big Dog, who became a Georgia Dawg, had the best serve in history. His thunderous blasts left even the most adept returners in a daze. 

American tennis can be neatly divided into eras. There was the foundational generation, with Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe. Then the “Let ’er rip” bad boys, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. The golden era of the Big Four – Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang. The Andy Roddick era. And then there was Big John. 

On the circuit he won 16 singles titles, was ranked as high as world No. 8, and finished the year as the top American for eight years. As we write, John has blasted an ATP record of 14,411 aces. 

But rarely has one player been more linked with one match than John Isner. His seemingly unending match in 2010, in which he prevailed over Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 70-68 in 11:05, was a match for the ages that lasted for an eternity. 

Sure, some dismissed it as if it were an exercise of dead man walking. But it was riveting theater, an outer court match that ended up on the front page of the New York Times and on the Letterman show. The longest match ever may have set a record for records: 183 games, Isner’s 112 aces, 215 combined aces, an incredible 515 unreturnable serves, 168 straight service holds and the longest fifth set ever – 138 games, that lasted 8:11. 

The match also recorded the most heroic achievement by an ump. The guy didn’t want to take a single comfort break. 

The battle was an unending song whose melody was a drone of service winners. A test of endurance, it was played in a curious twilight zone of aces. The wounded, wobbly Isner plodded along at a glacial pace, seemingly on the brink. 

Lumbering and languid, Isner battled as if he were off in his own world. The match with the Frenchman was more an exploration of the spirit, an almost primordial dance of discovery, that took Isner and Mahut to places that no others had been: automatic pilot, muscle memory, heart and desire, instinct and hope. 

Here was an 11-hour duel that, as long as there are strawberries and cream, will be celebrated – not so much for its mind-numbing records but for its display of grit and inspiring spirit.

Yet as storied as Isner’s marathon first-round triumph is, John’s impact on the sport has been far more than one magical win. He was a brave, sometimes singular leader at a time when American men’s tennis was adrift. 

It was said that he possessed the single most devastating stroke in the history of the game. No other stratospheric fellow played so well. Popular in the locker room and on court, John was much more than a serve – POW! ZAP! ACE! 

Yes, all those 7-6 wins at times turned his matches into what seemed like serving contests. Isner holds the record for the most aces ever, an astonishing 14,391. And tiebreaks were like a spiritual haven for him. He’s won a record 504 of them. 

A whiz at the University of Georgia, Isner led the Dawgs to the NCAA team championship, won the NCAA doubles title and reached the 2007 singles final. Many consider him the best collegian who played in the pros since John McEnroe.

Eventually Isner moved to near the top. A stunning five-set US Open upset of then No. 5 Andy Roddick in 2009 was a key springboard. Aside from his huge first and second serves, John picked his spots and found the open court. His power forehand, when set, was one of the most imposing in the game. He could strike backhand winners and move quite nimbly for a giant. He had solid volleys, underrated defensive skills, a step-in return of serve that could punish, and a wicked drop shot. Andy Roddick noted, “John’s pretty relaxed…and serves well at big moments. He adds 15 miles an hour on his second serve and it seems like it doesn’t.”

He was one of the best doubles players of our era, winning eight titles, including Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back in 2022. 

Isner scored extraordinary Davis Cup wins on clay in France and in Switzerland (over Roger Federer, no less), and ended up winning 16 ATP singles titles, including the 2018 Masters Miami Open. But it was his unhappy fate to compete in the era of the Big Four.  

Four other times Isner reached a Masters final but each time he lost to none other than Nole, Roger, Rafa or Murray. He had a devastating 6-34 record against the Big Four and, truth be told, his 15 other titles were all at smaller events: six in Atlanta, four in Newport, two in Winston Salem, two in Auckland and one in Houston.  

For too many seasons he was like an island in the rankings, the only American in the top 20. Yes, he only once got beyond the quarterfinals in a Slam (at Wimbledon in 2018). But many claimed his greatest strength was being consistently good. No kidding. For nine of his 10 years in the prime of his career he finished the season in the top 10. 

For all his popularity, John had his share of controversies. He called racial justice demonstrators “anarchistic losers.” During the Covid lockdown he played in a controversial exhibition and told his critics, “You coronabros can stay in your basement all you want. I choose to live my life.”

And what a life it’s been. Now a father of four who lives in Dallas and has a net worth of $14 million, Isner will long live in the hearts of American fans. 

At last year’s US Open, American tennis lost a big lady with big shoulders who had the best serve in the history of the WTA. Serena Williams defined her generation. This year, we’ll be losing a quiet man with broad shoulders and a massive game – a big man with a big heart, who for a generation has been a beloved presence, who served from the trees and brought so many to their knees. 

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