2014 U.S. Open: Now or Never for John Isner?

A self-described ‘tier-three’ tennis player, John Isner remains America’s best. Heading into this year’s U.S. Open, the big-serving big man explains why the tournament in Queens provides his clearest path to Grand Slam glory—but he isn’t losing any sleep over it

Illustration by Malcolm Farley.

(Illustration by Malcolm Farley)

“I’m not hitting on you,” John Isner’s girlfriend, Maddy McKinley, says, after softly punching me in the thigh. I look at her, puzzled. “If I do that during the match,” she clarifies, motioning again with her hand, “I’m not hitting on you. It’s a tic. I get really nervous.”

It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in late July, and we’re sitting in Isner’s player’s box, along with his parents, Bob and Karen Isner, who have driven from their home in Greensboro, N.C., to take in their youngest son’s first match of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. Also in the box: two family friends, RapidForce President Jeffrey Smith, a kinesiology tape maker and potential sponsor, and Clint Cordial, the 29-year-old tennis star’s chiropractor and ever-present travel companion. 

While Isner has never won the Citi Open, an ATP 500 event, the tournament holds special importance for him. In 2007, during his first weeks on tour, the former University of Georgia standout upset a string of highly ranked players—winning five consecutive third-set tie breakers—en route to a title match against Andy Roddick, the last American Grand Slam champion. Last year, he made the finals again, but fell to Juan Martín del Potro.

As Isner takes his warmups, I ask McKinley if she has any other advice for a player’s box first-timer. “Yeah,” she says, eyeing the court. “Watch your face.”

She isn’t kidding. Ranked No. 12 in the world (at the time of the D.C. tournament), Isner has built his reputation—and his career, for that matter—on blistering, unreturnable serves and booming forehands. What’s more, we are practically on top of the players, since this match has been relegated to an intimate, secondary court as a result of foreign TV demands—a financial consideration that does not sit well with Isner, the No. 1 American in men’s singles. Even for spectators, “the ball comes at you fast,” says McKinley.

Isner’s serve is a uniquely potent weapon, registering just shy of 150 miles per hour, on occasion. He calls it his “finishing move,” evoking the video game Mortal Kombat. It’s not just about speed, either. At 6-foot-10, Isner delivers the ball from skyscraping heights, creating impossible angles and above-your-head bounces. At a Tuesday practice session with Robby Ginepri, a late-middle-aged onlooker gawked at Isner’s offerings, exclaiming: “Oh, shit! He’s gotta jump up to get it.”

Indeed, watching him serve at close range is a privilege, like bearing witness to Dominique Wilkins—another former Bulldog—throwing down dunks in his prime. Isner is well aware that he wins the majority of his matches as a direct result of his ability to overpower opponents. In 2013, he led the tour with 979 aces. “If they slip up one time, the set, the match could be over,” as he puts it.

And the slip-ups have added up. Over the course of his seven-year career, Isner has climbed into the top 10 on multiple occasions, made the Olympics quarterfinals, shined on the Davis Cup circuit and racked up nine ATP titles, while vanquishing greats like Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

On this day, Isner is by far the more accomplished player—his opponent is 24-year-old Steve Johnson, a fellow American ranked No. 68 in the world—but he knows better than to take any match for granted, especially his first of a tournament. “That’s always the hardest,” Cordial tells me. “It’s night and day. After the first match, his level of tennis absolutely skyrockets.”

Case in point: The previous week’s tournament in Atlanta, which Isner won, defending his 2013 title, after nearly being ousted in his first match; he didn’t drop a set the rest of the way. This reality weighs on Isner. “I’ll have some anxiety before a tournament starts,” he admitted to me on the eve of his clash with Johnson. “I know how shitty it feels to lose early.”

Isner has experienced his greatest triumphs on home soil, like last month's championship in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Isner has experienced his greatest triumphs on home soil, like last month’s championship in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

As Isner prepares to serve the first game of his first match in D.C., he bounces the ball between his legs, from back to front, out of habit. On the opposite end of the court, Johnson crouches low, waiting for the boom to drop. And in the box, with a hush falling over his family, I wonder if the big man could use someone’s leg to punch.

***

John Isner never thought he was going to be a tennis player. As a kid, he would occasionally catch Breakfast at Wimbledon on HBO, but it was other sports (and fake sports) that captured his imagination.

“My life revolved around professional wrestling,” he says, when we first sit down on the mezzanine of the W hotel, one block from the White House. He adds: “I still watch it.”

As a freshman in high school, the then-six-foot-three Isner was made to choose between basketball and tennis. Though he excelled at both, a career in either didn’t seem realistic. The idea was to earn a scholarship, and tennis provided the likeliest path. If he could do it over again, he maintains he would choose differently.

“I should have seen it coming,” Isner says of the growth spurt that elevated him six inches over the next few years. “I was so underdeveloped. I didn’t start shaving until I was 19.” None of which is to suggest the kid made a bad choice. In 2003, Isner matriculated to the state university in Athens, on scholarship, and enjoyed a full college experience—unusual for players on the pro tour. There were football weekends, nights chasing girls and countless games of beer pong “with actual paddles.” Says Isner, “I think that’s the more classic way.”

It wasn’t until his junior year, when he became the No. 1 college player in the country, that Isner thought he might be able to follow in the footsteps of American greats like Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, and become a professional tennis player.

Still, there’s something unassuming about the baby-faced Isner. He no longer slouches like he used to, trying to pull his head into a turtle shell, embarrassed by his size, but he also doesn’t demand attention when he walks into a room. He’s neck-craning tall, but you almost don’t believe his height, like it’s an accident or he’s somehow kidding. (Just ask the practice-session spectator who kept insisting the net looked low against Isner’s knees.)

During practice, Isner takes long, looping strokes and seems to generally be moving at about half-speed, as though his main goal is to avoid tripping over his own feet. His matches are a different story.

In the first set against Johnson, Isner comes out firing, serving up aces and bounding toward the net, transporting his massive frame with a grace absent from his earlier sessions. When he’s hitting well, he looks totally in control, making his opponent run and finishing points quickly. When Isner gears up for a forehand, it is not with the blasé windmills he demonstrated earlier. He crouches low and cocks his elbow back, appearing like a praying mantis, all limbs and joints. 

Unfortunately, Isner’s dominance while serving is rivaled by a vulnerability on the receiving end. After 12 games, he has yet to earn even a break point. As an extra-long shadow stretches from his size-15 feet in the day’s dying light, the four-time All-American motions for his towel. Notched at six games a piece, we head to a tiebreak.

Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber is a full foot shorter than Isner. (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber (left), a full foot shorter than John Isner, has knocked the big American out of the past two U.S. Opens. (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

***

No stranger to tiebreakers, Isner won more end-of-set duels (38) than any other player on tour last year, and for his career, he has performed better than anyone, including Roger Federer, who he leads by infinitesimal winning-percentage points. The big American has also been party to some epic breaker battles, like in the first set of his second-round match at Wimbledon this year, which he won 19-17, as well as some record-book contests, like his 2012 French Open matchup with Paul-Henri Mathieu, which was clocked at five hours and 41 minutes.

Then of course there was the legendary 2010 Wimbledon bout against Nicolas Mahut. That match was the longest in history, lasting more than 11 hours and spanning three days. Isner, who won the final set 70-68, became an instant worldwide sensation, stealing thunder from that year’s World Cup and earning appearances on Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America.

Isner isn’t much of a showman, especially during long matches. He likes to conserve energy and mope around the court. “I do look gassed,” he admits, “but I actually play my best when I’m tired. People have gotten mad, because they think I’m playing possum, but that’s not what I’m doing.” In reality, he says, his game improves as he tires, because that’s when his nerves disappear. “When I’m tired, there’s only one option: go big or go home.” And in tiebreakers, Isner knows he has the advantage. “That’s when I’m hitting my spots better and my serves bigger, adding a few MPHs,” he says.

Sure enough, Isner does not lose a point on serve in the first-set tiebreak against Johnson, and eventually steals one from the younger American player, taking the set.

Critics contend Isner only plays “big-man tennis” when he’s the one tossing the ball, and that he needs to approach the net more often, instead of allowing himself to be run around the court. “I’ve heard it so much,” he says. “I have to be as aggressive as I can, not retreating whatsoever, playing on my front foot, playing the right way. The crucial stat when I’m returning is on the second serve. I have to win more than 50 percent of those.”

Throughout his career, Isner has worked with a variety of coaches, including Craig Boynton, who oversaw his meteoric rise in the rankings following a disappointing 2008 season, and Courier, his Davis Cup captain, about whom Isner says, “When he talks, I listen.” His current coach is Mike Sell. But whoever is in his corner, Isner knows that, on the court, it’s up to him—and him alone—to stick to the game plan.

As an individual sport, tennis can be “tough and sort of lonely,” according to Isner. And even when he starts a match with the right mindset and he’s going for his shots, being aggressive, it can be hard to stick with it when balls are scooting wide and long. “When they’re not falling, you’re not feeling good,” he sighs. 

During the second set against Johnson, frustration creeps to the surface. Not known to be overly animated or demonstrative, Isner is forced to work harder than his opponent, and when a drop shot on the far side of the court is called out, he explodes toward the chair umpire. “Whaaa?!” he says, tearing off his hat. “You have to be out of your mind to call that ball out!” If the match were being played on the stadium court, Isner could challenge the call. But such technology is unavailable here. The umpire concedes that “maybe” he got the call wrong, which does little to pacify Isner, who retorts: “Maybe? Maybe you got it wrong? Or 100 percent you got it wrong?!”

While Isner manages to win that game, more signs of frustration soon emerge, like when he sends a ball sailing over the far wall, after an unforced error. Trailing four games to three, Isner goes down 15-40, facing two break points. He motions for the towel. When it doesn’t come, he motions again, a gesture brimming with annoyance. Johnson wins the next point and the subsequent game, evening the match at one set apiece.

Isner contends that more American players ought to consider college before turning pro. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

Isner contends that more American players ought to consider college before turning pro. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

***

2013 was supposed to be the year Isner took the next step. In 2012, he broke into the top 10 for the first time and turned in two of his most impressive matches, including a Davis Cup victory over Federer and a semifinal win over No. 1 Djokovic at Indian Wells, a Masters 1000 event. With Roddick retiring, America was looking for its next champion, and no one showed more promise than the big guy with the even bigger serve.

By many measures, Isner had a terrific 2013, winning two ATP titles, knocking off three top-10 players—including Djokovic again—on his way to a finals appearance at the Western & Southern Open, another Masters 1000 event, and finishing the year inside the top 15. “I’m very proud of what I was able to do,” says Isner. And yet, for the second year running, he was unable to make the second week of a Grand Slam, an expressed goal. 

“I know I should have better results at the Grand Slams,” Isner tells me. When I ask if he ever resents competing in what many consider a golden age of tennis, he shakes his head no. “It’s really cool,” he says. “I’ll always be able to look back and say I played in—in my opinion, and I’m a little biased—the best era of tennis.”

Not that he’s intimidated by the big boys. “Any time I step onto a court, I believe I can beat anyone,” says Isner, who has notched wins against seven of the current top 10 players. “At the same time, I can have a match where I lose to someone ranked pretty far below me.”

Such is the all-or-nothing nature of his game.

At 2-2 in the third set against Johnson, there are white knuckles in the player’s box, as Isner wins a tough service game, overcoming a foot fault, his second of the match, and fending off a possible break. I turn to Isner’s mom, Karen, and say, “I don’t know how you take this.” She rolls her eyes knowingly. McKinley punches her knee: “It’s not easy.”

While Isner admits he doesn’t always try his hardest on return games, preferring to save his energy, unless a break opportunity presents itself, there is no surrender in his bones. In this way, he is very much his mother’s son. As Sam Duvall, Isner’s agent, puts it, she is “his rock.”

A colon cancer survivor, Karen Isner is tough and charismatic, with a poke-fun tongue. She could probably be mayor of most small towns. Before the match, within minutes of our meeting, she was already breaking my balls for not knowing how close Greensboro was to D.C. (dumb Northerner) and sharing details of a custom-made dress that will be scandalously revealing. “My boobs are gonna fall out,” she said. In the player’s box, however, Momma Isner has gone silent, twisted tight with concern for her boy.

“Come on, Karen. Fight!” McKinley says, to break the tension.

Karen smiles, then turns to her husband. “You doing O.K.?” she says, as the third set enters its match-deciding tiebreak. “I’m all right,” he responds. “You?” But Karen is once again silent, right up until the sixth point of the breaker, which Isner wins on Johnson’s serve to go up 4-2. “Yes!” she exclaims, pumping her fist and lowering her head to her knees, as if in prayer.

Poised to win the match and advance in the tournament, Isner just has to hold serve. But he cannot do it. Moments later, Isner is down 5-6, facing match point, serving to stay alive. His first offering is unreturnable, 6-6. His next is a fault, followed by the unthinkable: Isner double-faults, committing exactly the sort of trying-too-hard error he so often pressures opponents into. Down 6-7, he sends a cross-court return wide, and that’s the match. The younger American moves on.

***

John Isner knows he’s stubborn as hell. At tournaments, for example, he resists spending more time on the event grounds than he absolutely has to, preferring to do his own thing, off-site, like manage his many fantasy teams. As for his busted-up old BlackBerry? He flat-out refuses to trade it in—to his girlfriend’s consternation—in spite of the fact it has a second-rate fantasy app and it’s “tiny in my big-ass hands.”

For this reason, I worry Isner won’t want to speak to me again following his defeat. His frustration was palpable, and boiled over during a post-match presser, in which he called his court assignment “bullshit.” On the heels of a good night’s sleep and a full day of sock-shopping with McKinley, however, Isner is able to put the loss into perspective, as he always does.

“I need to try to cherish these moments, whether they’re really good or really bad, because when I’m not doing this, I’m going to miss it,” Isner says, dressed in mesh shorts and flip-flops, when we meet back at the W. If those words seem wise beyond his years, don’t be shocked. Isner may not be an athlete-philosopher along the lines of Muhammad Ali, but he is a gentle soul, sensitive to the world around him. Perhaps that’s why Isner was so hurt last year when the U.S. Open crowd turned on him, in a match against the flashy French player Gael Monfils. He still tenses slightly when the subject is brought up.

Isner says the U.S. Open "is probably my best chance" to win a Grand Slam. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Isner says the U.S. Open “is probably my best chance” to win a Grand Slam. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I mean, I’m over it,” he says. “But personally, I’d like to have 95 percent of the crowd, and it seemed like it was 50-50.” That support can make a big difference for Isner, who wins close to 20 percent more matches when playing in the U.S. versus abroad.

Heading into this year’s U.S. Open, Isner says he’s ready to give the crowd something to cheer about. “The goal is to play someone higher than me,” he says. “The crowd loves rooting for an American that’s the underdog. And when I’m the underdog, I’m extremely tough to beat.”

To date, Isner has never made it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Should he ever earn the chance to play for major hardware, however, it stands to reason it will be at the annual event in Queens, with its hard courts and home cooking—and this year’s draw seems especially wide open, with Rafael Nadal withdrawing and other top players scuffling. The big man doesn’t disagree: “I would say the U.S. Open is probably my best chance.”

And if he never wins one? He says that’s O.K., too. “No, it wouldn’t haunt me,” Isner says, bristling at the notion he could ever be considered an underachiever. “I keep coming back to this: Tennis wasn’t my whole life growing up. At 14, I wasnt dreaming of becoming a Grand Slam champion. If I don’t achieve it, then it’s not like ‘my life isn’t complete’ type of thing.”

That may not come as welcome news to observers of the sport, especially tennis reporters who continue to bemoan the state of American men’s tennis. Just this year, The Wall Street Journal deemed Isner “America’s Only Tennis Hope,” a label he shrugs off. The 29-year-old maintains it is neither his concern nor responsibility how American men do as a whole, although he does believe U.S. players can improve their fortunes by going to college. “The way the game is now, you don’t really have any teenagers doing great things on the pro tour. Even in your early-20s, it’s pretty rare,” he says. “You don’t have to be top 100 in the world at 19 years old.”

I ask if it ever bothers him that, in spite of his many career accomplishments, the match against Mahut is the thing for which he is best known. “It doesn’t, really,” he says. “It’s up to me to make a better name for myself.

“I probably consider myself a tier-three player,” Isner continues. “You could say there are the top four. Behind them are guys like [Tomás] Berdych, [David] Ferrer and del Potro. I’m probably in the next group after that. Certainly I haven’t gone backward. I’ve just kind of stayed there.”

Going forward, he adds, it’s all about staying healthy. Given his size, it’s a minor miracle that Isner has avoided serious injury, and he wants to keep it that way, which is why he won’t enter a tournament without Cordial, his chiropractor, in tow, whom he refers to as “the most important piece of my puzzle.”

“Tennis is a rigorous sport, and John’s a big guy,” Cordial had told me earlier, identifying “major joints” as potential problem areas. “You look at hips and knees and shoulders, but he’s been pretty healthy. And mechanically he’s very sound. He’s in the prime of his career.” 

Isner agrees with his chiropractor’s assessment. Partly because he spent four years in college, the athlete insists he’s a young 29, and warns against those who would prematurely close the book on him. “I think there’s plenty of tread left on my tires,” says Isner, whose star always seems to burn brightest when he’s most underestimated.

As we make our way back to the lobby, Isner tells me he has an early flight the next morning, and is past due for treatment with Cordial. He looks me in the eye but is already gone, having turned his sights from D.C. to the U.S. Open and the rest of the hard-court season. And then his final words, which leap high above me, like an unreturnable serve: “I still truly believe that my best tennis is ahead.”