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The New Face Of American Men's Tennis: John Who?

Andrew Seah |
September 12, 2012 | 12:20 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer


John Isner, competing in the 2011 French Open. (Y.Caradec/Wikimedia Commons)
John Isner, competing in the 2011 French Open. (Y.Caradec/Wikimedia Commons)
So, with the conclusion of the 2012 U.S. Open, we truly bid farewell to the consummate All-American Andy Roddick. Aces were served, forehands ripped, volleys knifed, tears shed and applause all around. After his fourth-round defeat to Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, Roddick, facing a torrent of emotions, was speechless. “For the first time in my career I’m not sure what to say”, the 30-year-old said, addressing the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

After an outstanding, if slightly mistimed, career spanning a good decade, the American public finally embraced the man who, in many ways, has long been underappreciated. Ever since the revered duo of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras bowed out of the sport, the refreshingly outspoken Roddick was left to lift the American flag. Now, as we depart from the chilly nights of Flushing Meadows and bid adieu to the final Grand Slam of the season, there’s a pressing issue to address: Who’s the new face of American tennis?

Sam Querrey? Ryan Harrison? Or, god forbid, Mardy Fish? 

There’s another candidate whose shadow (literally) looms over the others – 27-year-old John Isner, currently the 10th-ranked player in the world. 

Isner has yet to make a semi-finals appearance in any Grand Slam, with his best achievement a quarter-finals berth at last year’s U.S. Open. However, 2012 boasted signature victories – one over Swiss maestro Roger Federer in the Davis Cup in February; the other, a defeating over top seed and then-world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells – that has lifted his name into the consciousness of the tennis collective. His epic first-round encounter with Nicholas Mahut in the 2010 Wimbledon championships, the longest singles match in tennis history (11 hours and five minutes), has also cemented his place in tennis folklore. 

The North Carolina native, blessed with a 6-foot-9 frame and weighing in at a healthy 245 pounds, befits the term “behemoth.” In a sport where size is less of a factor than mobility, Isner is a tree amongst shrubs. Apart from his rarely seen physique, his style of play is also another infrequent nod to a bygone era of tennis.

Tennis of the modern era is predicated on quick feet, an ambidextrous all-court game, and most importantly, the ability to sustain and win long rallies along the baseline. The sport’s “Big Four” – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – are its most proficient exponents and hence, its most successful. 

Isner’s game, though, is decidedly throwback. He has a repertoire as wide as a supermodel’s waist. Much in the vein of a heavyweight boxer, he typically employs a quick one-two strike – a reliably potent forehand that follows a huge, monstrous serve. Also, on many occasions, he comes in after his serve in a fleeting impression of his more renowned, retired compatriot.  

Isner's famous serve (Charlie Cowins/Wikimedia Commons)
Isner's famous serve (Charlie Cowins/Wikimedia Commons)
Reliance on a powerful serve – a weapon that never “gets old” in spite of the proliferating emphasis on groundstrokes – is both a cause and a by-product of his unorthodoxy. He is a relatively slow mover on court, struggles with side-to-side movement in protracted baseline rallies and, as such, prefers to keep points short. 

Nevertheless, the combination is a strikingly effective mask; it highlights his one dominating stroke and covers up for his most glaring weakness. His serve, which once clocked in at almost 150 mph, is so lethal that opponents can rarely break it. Ever the gentlemen, Isner tries not to break their serve either. In all seriousness, the man himself has acknowledged that return of serve is one deficiency he has to address. 

But if there is one aspect of Isner’s game that has consistently been glossed over, and one that his supporters vehemently champion, it’s his mental fortitude. Isner serves a lot of aces. Everyone knows that. In fact, he holds the record for most number of aces with 113 in his now legendary match against Mahut. Unfortunately, Isner’s ability to pull out his lightning-quick bombshells in timely fashion is seldom recognized or acknowledged. His resolute service game, coupled with his wildly inconsistent return game, ensures that tiebreakers are commonplace. Just like how the best players seem to have a knack for the moment, Isner possesses searing concentration and verve in such critical junctures. In those moments, with ball in hand and a bullet to follow, his resolve is unwavering, his gun cocked and loaded. 

All things considered, the 27-year-old American’s status amongst tennis’ elite is an exceedingly commendable achievement. A square peg forced into a round hole, Isner has overcome his own shortcomings and, thus far, carved out a solid career. 

Roddick possessed a lucid candor and frankness off the court that Isner and any other current American players on tour will find difficult to replicate, but they are the country’s flag bearers now. The proverbial mantle of U.S. tennis is still up for grasp and the time is prime for big-serving Isner to capture American hearts in the most definitive way – winning. 

John, the ball is in your court. Service please. 



Reach Staff Writer Andrew Seah via email.



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