Andy Roddick reached No. 1 on the ATP Rankings, but can no longer reach toward the week-in, week-out bar of excellence set by front-runners Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who can?). James Blake has established himself as a Top 10 player, but is likewise no threat to No. 1.
In a country used to ruling the No. 1 ranking behind generations such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, and before that Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, U.S. fans have suffered through four years of drought at the top spot. That’s why the emergence of John Isner at the ATP Washington event had local fans in a frenzy, and the U.S. television audience wondering how far a 6-foot-9 kid with an almost-unbreakable service game can climb.
Fresh out of college where he graduated from the University of Georgia, Isner only received a wildcard into Washington (making tournament owner and U.S. tennis icon Donald Dell look like a genius) when Chilean Fernando Gonzalez withdrew from the event citing injury. Isner’s tour debut came only a couple weeks earlier when he lost in the first round the week after Wimbledon at the grasscourt event in Newport.
When Isner beat Britian’s Tim Henman, who is on the last leg of his career, 7-6 in the third set in the first round at Washington, it was seen as a hopeful curiosity. But when he won his next four matches, all 7-6 in the third, to serve his way into the final, everyone had taken notice — especially victims such as the former No. 2-ranked Tommy Haas.
“The tour should come up with a system where if you’re over 6-foot-6, you can’t play,” Haas joked after the loss, with Isner raining 30 aces down on the German.
In the Washington final a tired Isner lost in straight sets to Roddick, but with the effort likely cemented wildcard efforts for himself at the upcoming Masters Series-Cincinnati and at the US Open.
Isner has a tremendous serve and great touch around the net, but as you could expect with someone new to the pro game, he anticipates poorly from the baseline, and needs to work on his return of serve and generally being more aggressive. The negatives can be a positive as the youngster can make big improvements in his first year or two on tour.
“Is this just a fluke?” said ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale. “I think you can bet it’s not.”
Isner spoke with JAX Tennis Magazine on his emergence out of a successful college career to the pro circuit:
What have you been doing tennis-wise since winning the NCAA title and graduating from Georgia?
After winning the NCAA championships in Athens last May, I first took a whole week off from tennis. That was really nice because I needed to get my mind off of tennis for a while. After the week off I moved all my stuff down to Tampa, FL where I now train professionally at the Saddlebrook Resort. I really starting hitting the practice courts hard in Tampa because that’s my job now and I don’t have to worry about studying anymore.
Who is currently part of your support team — coach, fitness coach, etc.?
Well I do not have a personal tennis or fitness coach at the moment but there are so many great coaches that have been on the court with me in Tampa which has helped a lot. On the road the USTA has helped me out a lot and I have been able to train with them and hear what they have to say about my game which has been really helpful. I haven’t nailed down a personal fitness or tennis coach yet partly because I have been on the road pretty much all summer. When I finally have some downtime I will definitely look into that.
How was the experience at the Aptos Challenger and Newport compared to winning the USA F-14 satellite event?
Winning that first Future [tournament] was great and it gave me a lot of confidence heading in to my next tournament which was the ATP in Newport, RI. It was tough getting used to the grass over there and I also ran into a real tough player in Dick Norman, I had my chances but eventually lost in a close match. After that I played the Aptos Challenger where I lost 7-6 in the third. That was especially painful but I think both of those losses really made me realize how hard I have to work to stay at that level consistently.
Do you pay attention to how big men on tour such as Ivo Karlovic go about finding success, or do you see your style as too different?
Personally I don’t really pay too much attention to pro tennis at all except for when Fed [Roger Federer] is playing. What I do know is that Ivo is doing great now and people have drawn some similarities between us because we are both so tall. If I can end up being as successful as he is then that would be great. All I can do is work my hardest and hope that I get to the level that he is at.
Have any tour players or coaches taken you under their wing or given you advice?
Living in Tampa now has allowed me to hang around Mardy Fish and James Blake a lot which are two pretty good friends of mine. They both have been giving me invaluable advice on what it takes to make it playing tennis. I have been fortunate enough to work out with those guys on and off the court which I feel has improved my game immensely. Mardy and James are great guys and have really gone out of their way to help me out.
Have to received help from the USTA, and have you signed with an agency? What are your current endorsements?
The USTA has helped me out a lot so far which I really appreciate. I’ve been working out with some of the coaches from the USTA on the road which has been great. I recently signed with SFX and have Sam Duvall representing me. Sam has been amazing thus far helping me out with wildcards and other opportunities. He is currently in the process of working on some deals with me and hopefully we will have those nailed down pretty soon.
What are your immediate goals in pro tennis? Is there a back-up plan?
Obviously I would like to play tennis for as long as I can and make a healthy living doing that. I really don’t set too many goals for myself. All I can do is work my hardest and let the chips fall where they may. Whether I make it or not, I just want to know that I gave it my all. If it doesn’t work out I have a degree from the University of Georgia to fall back on.
This article appears in the September issue of JAX Tennis Magazine, Northeast Florida’s tennis source, www.jaxtennismagazine.com.
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