John Isner: A Grand Farewell on the Grandstand

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Bill Simons

New York

The grand man of American tennis, who was out on the grandstand, fell in five sets. But what a grand stand John Isner has made over his 17 years. The classy Texas giant was the leader of the American pack between the Andy Roddick era and the emergence of our appealing wannabes who are on the cusp of greatness: Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul.

What a gigantic imprint the singular Isner made on the tennis record book and on the shape of the game. His 11:05 Wimbledon triumph in 2010 over Nicolas Mahut had a certain nobility to it. Every tennis nerd worth his stats sheet knows it set a slew of records (see below) but, more importantly, the three-day marathon was a never-to-be-forgotten testimony to stamina and will. 

Yes, Jimmy Connors’s feat of winning the US Open on three different surfaces – grass, clay and hard courts – is a candidate for the most unbreakable record in sports. But so is Isner’s epic three-day death march with Mahut.

Beyond this, America’s favorite 6’10” tennis warrior stretched the dimensions of our game. 

When Isner started, 6’4” players were a big deal. Now, 6’6” guys regularly lift trophies. Isner’s serve was often said to be the best ever. There never was a better bail out-shot – and his record mark of 14,470 aces is far beyond others. 

Similarly, no one played and won more tiebreaks than John. His marathon matches convinced the four Slams to finish their deciding sets in a 10-point tiebreak. But the imposing guy was so much more than a serve-bot. 

His forehand was fierce, and often found the open court. His touch was amazingly subtle. He improved his return of serve. His work ethic would have impressed any boss. The man, who was guided by the likes of Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish, went on to encourage a generation of American up-and-comers. “Pay it forward” was his ethos.

Today at 3:09 PM John lost to the rising Floridian, Michael Mmoh, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7). But, as it has done for years John’s grit gained hearts. 

Of course, the tall man out on the grandstand lost in a fifth-set tiebreaker. Tennis’ scriptwriters wouldn’t have had it any other way. 

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At one point Isner, who was a Top 20 player for a decade, succinctly summarized his career in two fateful sentences: “I’ve been pretty consistent, consistently good…But the thing that is really disappointing is [that] it’s tough to get into that next level.” 

In other words, John emerged in the teeth of the Big Four. Time and again he was pummeled by Nole, Rafa, Roger and Andy Murray. He’s leaving with a 6-34 record against them: Djokovic 2-10, Federer 2-8, Nadal 1-8, Murray 1-8.

Still, John downed Federer on clay in a key Davis Cup match in Switzerland and won the 2018 Miami Open.

John excelled on home soil. And the North Carolina native, who went to the University of Georgia and now lives in Dallas, especially loved the South. He won 10 of his 16 titles in either Atlanta, Miami, Winston-Salem or Houston. Not surprisingly, after a dramatic 2013 US Open loss, he tweeted, “I miss the South. #godscountry.”

Now tennis will miss big John, whose contribution to his sport was as massive as his game. 

Isner’s Top 5 Most Memorable Pro Matches:

1.  His immortal three-day, 11:05 Wimbledon marathon victory over France’s Nicolas Mahut in 2010 that featured a 70-68 fifth set. The longest match ever set a record for records: 183 games, Isner’s 112 aces, 215 combined aces, 515 unreturnable serves, 168 straight service holds and the longest fifth set ever – 138 games that lasted 8:11. 

2. He beat Federer on clay in Switzerland in Davis Cup in 2012.

3.  Isner collected his biggest ATP title when he took the 2018 Miami Open.

4. He won the Indian Wells and Miami doubles back to back in 2022. 

5. Played another Wimbledon marathon with South African Kevin Anderson at the 2018 Wimbledon semi, which Anderson won 26-24 in the fifth in a match that lasted 6:35. Many contend that the match, together with his 2010 marathon, were the reasons a tiebreak was brought in to all of the Slams to determine winners of deciding sets.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: There are whispers around the US Open that the WTA will go to Saudi Arabia to hold its year-end championships. 

FANTASTIC FRANCES: Chris Evert quipped, “We should all love our jobs as much as Frances Tiafoe loves his!”

QUOTEBOOK

“The US Open was always my favorite tournament to come to.” – Andy Murray

“It seems likes Coco Gauff has been a teenager forever.” – Pam Shriver 

“American Peyton Stearns has got a high IQ and is getting better and better. She has swag and plays like every match like it’s a college match.” – Chris Evert

A GREEK TRAGEDY – NOT: Stefanos Tsitsipas, who lost to the Swiss Dominic Stricker today, has never gotten beyond the third round in New  York and he again has parted ways with his coach, the Greek-Australian Mark Philippoussis.

GO FIGURE: 36-year-old Andy Murray, who long has been playing with a metal hip, lost to Grigor Dimitrov today and hasn’t gotten beyond the third round of a Grand Slam in six years.

YOU KNOW YOU ARE IN NEW YORK WHEN: A burly Italian restaurant owner with a booming tenor voice on the upper east side turns his eatery into an operatic happening.

A PUNY COMMENTARY: Chris Evert noted, “Tennis players are huge now. I’m 5’6” and I used to be average – normal. Now when I stand next to tennis players, I’m puny.”

KARMIC BALANCE: Throughout his career, John Isner was frustrated by the Big Four – Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray. But so what? He has four beautiful kids, all of whom are under five. 

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