Tennis Prose



Appreciating John Isner’s Amazing Career

By Scoop Malinowski

Two decades ago John Isner was a very good US junior player. Then eighteen years old, the tall kid from Greensboro, NC competed at the 2003 National Boys 18s in Kalamazoo and reached the quarterfinals where he lost to Robert Yim 76 75 (Yim subsequently won the tournament by beating Chris Kwon in the semis and Jamil Al-Agba in the finals 62 62 64).

“One of my kids played Isner in Kalamazoo,” remembers Don Petrine, a South Florida tennis coach. “Billy Mulligan was about five-foot-eight, ranked about 6 in Florida. I remember Isner hit a second serve that kicked and aced Billy over his head – with racquet extended. It was on like court six or seven where you can sit behind the netting. You can sit and watch it, really good seating. That was the first year I ever saw John Isner. He hadn’t done much in juniors and then suddenly he started rising fast. Everybody was saying, You have to see this kid play. I think he sort of came out of nowhere.”

Isner went on to play college tennis at University of Georgia and became a dominant force, compiling a singles record of 143-28 and doubles record of 140-27, winning the NCAA doubles title in 2005 with partner Antonio Ruiz-Rosales. Isner and the Bulldogs won the NCAA team title in 2007 vs Illinois. Isner also reached the NCAA singles final but lost in three sets to Virginia’s Somdev Devvarman.

In the summer of 2007 Isner embarked on his professional tennis career, needing wildcards to play in Futures and Challengers. In July 2007 in Lexington, KY Isner quickly established himself as he beat five top 300 players and three seeded players which improved his ranking to 416.

The week after Isner luckily got into the Legg Mason ATP tournament in Washington, DC after a late withdrawal freed up a wildcard which Isner was awarded “last minute.”

That was the first time I ever saw John Isner or even heard or read his name. On the first Monday of the tournament I still vividly remember wandering around to see the practice courts and saw this strange, near seven foot figure playing points. It was astonishing to see such a big guy’s body coordinating and playing ATP level tennis. I stood there in awe for several minutes.

Isner of course seized his opportunity and won five matches that week all in consecutive days, all in third set tiebreakers, taking out established ATP players Tim Henman, Benjamin Becker, Wayne Odesnik, Tommy Haas and Gael Monfils. Though Isner lost in the final to Andy Roddick his ATP ranking ascended to 193 in the world after six weeks on the pro tour. (I did this Biofile interview with John Isner at Legg Mason that week after the Becker match)

By the US Open a month later, Isner beat Rik de Voest and Jarkko Niemenen and even won a set from no. 1 seed and eventual champion Roger Federer in the third round. Over the next fifteen years Isner maintained a top 20 range ranking and won sixteen career ATP singles titles. He also recorded victories over Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Perhaps Isner’s defining moment was the first round 2010 Wimbledon epic 71-69 five set ultra-marathon vs Nicolas Mahut which needed three days to finish.

After Roger Federer defeated Isner in the 2019 Miami Open final, the Swiss king described facing Isner and his extraordinary serve: “It’s a tricky one. Sometimes you go with momentum. Sometimes you go with feel. Sometimes you guess maybe a little bit and sometimes you see it. It’s a combination of all sort of things. And then some days you feel it better than others. And just because — let’s just say I know he’s going to be T, let’s say he told me that before the serve, that still doesn’t mean I’m going to hit a return winner, because the margins are so slim when it comes in so fast and so high. No. 1, you want to connect. Secondly you want to get in a neutral position, which is very difficult, because you know he’s looking for his forehand or he looks to come in or try to take charge of the point. Yeah, it’s tough. Then you just hope that sort of the stars align, that you pick the right side, that he picks the wrong side, that maybe he misses a serve, that you can put him in uncomfortable situations time and time again, and at the end somehow you find a way. He’s definitely got one of the serves you can basically not read. It’s that simple.”

Federer also expressed appreciation for Isner’s play style: “I enjoy the challenge, because believe it or not, maybe rallies are actually longer than you think sometimes. Because what happens sometimes on your own service games is you don’t go so big right away, because you have a bit of time to maybe outmaneuver him, as well, so all of a sudden you extend the rallies on your own service games. Sometimes you do it to maybe take his legs out, as well. So it’s not a bad thing to get some rallies going. Obviously he’s always going to try to shorten them. But what I like about it is just to see the sheer power and accuracy that big guys have on their serve. Take the top five guys on the tour right now. I just enjoy watching them to see how many times can they clock service winners? How many times can they serve their way out of trouble? I think it’s more fun than a guy rallying, and then, at the end after a 25-shot rally, somehow winning the point. I think it’s more fun if he hits the spot every time, but the guy looks on the other side, Man, what can I do? Nothing. I think that’s better. So I just — I have a lot of patience to watch those guys. So I appreciate the big servers.”

Now Isner is competing in his seventeenth and final US Open. He has decided to conclude his phenomenal career in Flushing Meadows, NY at the age of 38.

Yesterday on Louis Armstrong Stadium, Isner performed another vintage triumph, combining his history-making serve – he’s pounded over 14,411 aces in his career – American grit, perpetually underrated baseline game and court movement to beat Argentina’s Facundo Acosta Diaz 64 63 76. Some tennis observers might be surprised to know Isner did hit forehand, backhand and drop shot winners yesterday.

In the second round Isner will face American Michael Mmoh, to try to extend a legendary career for at least one more match.

Somehow, someway, one of the most unlikely and unexpected ATP careers is going to ace itself this fortnight at the US Open.

Isner in action vs Acosta Diaz on Armstrong as his full box looks on.

Isner Post Match Quotes: “It’s a little bit emotional. I think in a sense it’s helping me free up a little bit. If I didn’t win that match, it would be tough. I’m very resolute in my decision to retire. There’s no doubts about that.”

“To have so many friends and family, especially my wife, four kids getting on court with me, you can’t replicate that. It’s just extremely special. Those are moments I will always remember and will have amazing footage from that. That’s what it’s all about for me right now, trying to create moments. I’m not trying to prove anything at this stage in my career. I want to create some moments. I thought I had a pretty good one out there after the match today.”

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