Making Up For Lost Time
by Joel Drucker|
John Isner has begun to ramp up the intensity that was lacking in his University of Georgia days to build a well-rounded game that is reaping dividends this year.
Long before his Wimbledon epic, months before earning 15 minutes of fame for 665 minutes of toil, John Isner sat in the player's lounge of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, and owned up to a simple truth about himself. According to Isner, "In everything I've done I've always been a late bloomer."
In a sport where precocity often carries the day, Isner notes, "I didn't work very hard on my tennis in high school," carving out a junior career just good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Georgia. As his game matured amid high-energy undergraduates and one of the most passionate tennis venues you'll ever see, Isner's deliberate nature was quite apparent, inspiring his fellow Bulldogs to nickname him "Grandpa." Even now on the ATP World Tour, his good friend, rival and doubles partner Sam Querrey concedes the two are quite similar, a pair of low-key dudes who will treat each other to dinner should they come up against each other in singles. But when it comes to matters of post-match stretching, while Querrey might occasionally dash off the court once the last ball is hit, Isner is as devout about his rituals as a monk bowing to a shrine.
"In 2008 I came to see that maybe I'd done a little too well too early."
Tennis Hall of Famer and two-time Grand Slam singles champion Stan Smith understands the 6'9" Isner's approach. A rangy 6'4" – quite tall during his emergence in the '60s and '70s – Smith grasps the mindset of the long and lanky. Says Smith, "The big guy is trying to build a well-rounded, versatile game. That takes longer to develop."
But do not confuse Isner's methodical manner with a lack of engagement. Over the last 18 months, he has ramped up the intensity of everything from his on-court practice sessions to off-court fitness regimen, a complete transformation that has turned Isner from a curiosity to a consummate professional.
Pensive as Isner can be, his career since college has gone at rapid speed. Just three years ago, having finished four years at Georgia – including pacing the team to the 2007 NCAA title – he was ranked 416 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Granted a wild card into the main draw of the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C., Isner won five third-set tie-breaks to reach the final, where he lost to Andy Roddick. His ranking shot up to 138. A month later he went two rounds in the US Open where he took the opening set off Roger Federer before going down in four sets but earning praise from the great Swiss. Said Federer that afternoon in New York, "His potential seems good to me... he's going to be having a good career no doubt."
But then, invariably, Isner suffered a frustrating hiccup, a pause in his growth as he sought to adjust to everything from the rigors of competition to life as a traveling pro. Having soared from 843 at the end of '06 to 107 a year later, by the end of 2008 Isner had dropped 38 spots to a world ranking of 145.
Says Isner, "I had that early success and could see I could play on the tour, that I really could compete with the best pros. But in '08 I came to see that maybe I'd done a little too well too early. I got a lot of wild cards, skipped playing a lot of Challengers and maybe didn't develop as much as I could have as a player."
'Boynton dared ask Isner if he was willing to put in the hard work necessary to become a sustainable contender.'
Says Smith, "It's a quick man's game, and the big guy might be a little more vulnerable to injuries. So that's where you have to learn a lot about fitness and things like strengthening your core. Then there's the whole aspect of travel. In team sports things are arranged for you, but in tennis you're on your own, and the world isn't always set up for someone John's height. So you've got to be aware of these things when you fly, with cars, hotel rooms. It can be a real challenge to keep your body from getting twisted."
Ditto for the mind. Matters came to a head for Isner in March 2009. Following a frustrating loss in the qualifying for the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, where he served a paltry six aces and failed to generate a single break opportunity, his ranking treading water at 137 in the world, Isner contacted Craig Boynton, a former coach of Mardy Fish and Jim Courier, long affiliated with Saddlebrook Tennis Academy. Boynton dared ask Isner if he was willing to put in the hard work necessary to become a sustainable contender. True to his background as a communications major, Isner issued a concise response: I'm ready.
Over the course of nearly two weeks that Isner calls "the best practice of my life," he and Boynton reassembled his game. If earlier Isner had primarily pondered how to hit the ball properly and deploy his massive serve, with Boynton he began to think more about how to disrupt opponents; that is, to learn how to build points and matches with purpose, strategy and tactics. Says Boynton, "I wanted him to see how the opponent is thinking, how the opponent must deal with the specific weapons John brings to the table." That awareness triggered a better understanding of which strokes Isner needed to hone technically – such as his volleys and return of serve – and in turn also gain a greater sense of which areas he should emphasize in his off-court training. According to Boynton, "The holes are being filled."
By the end of 2009, Isner had climbed an impressive 111 places up the South African Airways ATP Rankings to World to 34 and earned the ATP World Tour's Most Improved Player Of The Year Award. Good things continued in 2010, including Isner taking his first singles title in Auckland, getting to the round of 16 at the Australian Open, making his Davis Cup debut, reaching three additional finals and cracking the Top 20. As you might expect from someone who benefited considerably from playing college tennis, Isner relished the chance to represent his country. That weekend in Belgrade, Serbia, he played two singles and also stepped up at the last minute for the doubles too. "That was a thrill," says Isner. "Even though I lost in singles, I learned a lot and I know now that by putting in the hard work I really belong right up there."
Prior to Wimbledon this year, Boynton told Isner he believed he was fit enough to play for 10 hours. It turned out Boynton had under-estimated. As the world came to know, over the course of three days, Isner's apparently prosaic first-round match took on an entirely different quality. Wimbledon's Court 18, the spot for his match versus Nicholas Mahut, is a cozy spot holding 782 spectators. But by the time Isner and Mahut came out to complete their match at 59-all in the fifth, Court 18 was being watched by millions more all over the world. Over the course of 20 more games, Isner and Mahut at last finished an eleven-hour and five-minute match that shattered records left and right. The fifth set alone was longer than any previous match in tennis history. Said Isner afterwards, "I really thought it was a dream. I didn't think that type of match was possible."
"The big guy wants to take advantage of his strengths – serve, tough to pass at the net. John is really building that kind of game."
Isner instantly became a pop culture hero. There he was on David Letterman's late night show, honoured by the US Olympic Committee as June's Male Athlete of the Month, winner of an ESPY Award, praised on the floor of the U.S. Senate. That match, Isner told CNN, was "absolutely crazy," and though he will likely talk about it until he draws his last breath, as the US Open nears his summer has been a return to normalcy – hard workouts and plenty of tennis over the course of the US Open Series. [Although an ankle injury sustained in Cincinnati interrupted his Flushing Meadows preparations.]
Last year's US Open was a breakthrough for Isner. After winning two matches to match his '07 debut result, he once again arrived in Arthur Ashe Stadium to take on a past champion, in this case America's top dog, Andy Roddick. Says Isner, "I'd played Andy in that first final in [Washington] DC, and then again in DC a few weeks prior to the Open. Though he beat me both times, that second match was really close. And so I came into that match with Andy for the first time not just hoping I could win, but knowing I could win." Taking the first two sets, Isner was well aware that Roddick would counter. Soon enough, Roddick had leveled the match to take it into the fifth. But in that decisive set, Isner held strong, winning it in a tie-break. Says Boynton, "That's the kind of effort where all the work you put in pays off – win or lose." As Smith says, "The big guy wants to take advantage of his strengths – serve, tough to pass at the net. John is really building that kind of game."
There once was a time when players spoke frequently about the desire to generate specific results – to win a Slam, attain the World No. 1 ranking, crack the Top 10. But in the 21st century, the language has changed. As coaches and players have disclosed more about matters related to fitness, training and tactics, the emphasis is less on outcome, more on process: What can the player do to become a better player?
Boynton fondly refers to "the journey," which covers everything from the surrealistic Wimbledon match to a long van ride from Germany to Roland Garros to Isner finetuning the kind of gunslinger tennis he'll need to perfect in a career that will likely be filled with tons of tie-breaks. Isner too knows the road is long and that his greatest moments are yet to come. As he says, "I feel my best tennis is two or three years away."
It's ironic that while Isner's playing style is increasingly based on taking time away from his opponents, there is no question that this 25 year old is not a man to be rushed.
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