By John Delong
Make no mistake, it will be a confident John Isner who will come to this year’s Winston-Salem Open.
The Greensboro native has played his best tennis of the year in the past month, winning in Atlanta and reaching the finals at Washington, D.C., and he plans to build on that momentum when he returns to the WSO as the two-time defending champion.
Isner spoke to Triad reporters in a teleconference Thursday from his Tampa, Fla., residence, and he left no doubt that he is feeling good about his game.
"I’m not trying to brag, but I do like my chances in Winston-Salem," Isner said. "It’s a place where I’m comfortable, and I tend to play my best when I’m comfortable. I play my best in Winston and I play well in Atlanta and I play well in D.C., so I guess there’s something about being home and not staying in a hotel and staying at my parents’ place that helps me play good tennis.
"So I have a shot to win again. But at the same time, I also know that the tournament the past two years has been so, so tough, given that a lot of good players want to get in their last match practices before the Big Dance in New York. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out."
The third annual tournament will be held Aug. 18-24 at the Wake Forest Tennis Center.
Isner, currently ranked No. 20 in the ATP World Tour rankings, will join a field that includes Top 30 players Tommy Haas, Sam Querrey, Tommy Robredo, Andreas Seppi, Benoit Paire, Feliciano Lopez and Juan Monaco – with late-addition wild cards sure to strengthen the field even more.
He is fully healthy again after a scare at Wimbledon when he was forced to retire two games into his second-round match against Adrian Mannarino because of a sharp pain in his knee. An MRI later showed no damage, but Isner said the pain at the time was so severe that he couldn’t have continued on even had he been up two sets and 5-love in the third.
Add to that a knee injury that kept him out of the Australian Open in January, and it’s been a year of emotional ups and downs, especially in the Grand Slams.
But during the American summer season, he has reached the semifinals at Newport, won at Atlanta where he beat Kevin Anderson in the finals, and then reached the finals at Washington before losing to Juan Martin Del Potro in three sets.
There was a hiccup this week when he lost two tiebreaks and fell to Vasek Pospisil in the first round of the Coupe Rogers in Montreal, but that has not shaken his confidence in the slightest. He considered it the law of averages catching up with him, since it was the first tight match he has lost all summer.
"Going on the last four years now, I’ve had very, very successful summer seasons," Isner said. "It all started when I played Newport. I like to play a lot of events in the summer, it’s where I’m most comfortable, and it’s really not a coincidence I’ve done well where I have. There’s something about playing at home. I always seem to play my best, and this year has been no different.
"I won Atlanta, made the final at D.C. and those are back-to-back, so I played nine matches in 11 days and that’s a very tough ask. Montreal’s a little disappointing, because I feel I lost a match I should have won, but I honestly feel had I won that match, I would still be in Montreal right now. It’s the first close match I’ve lost this summer, so it didn’t discourage me too much. It actually gives me a little time to rest, which I haven’t had time to do, so it could be a blessing in disguise, and I’ll be ready to go in Cincinnati and Winston-Salem."
A Winston-Salem three-peat would be a career first for the 28-year-old, and would give him eight career ATP World Tour singles titles. It would also give him three wins in the same year for the first time; he won at Houston in April in addition to winning at Atlanta.
Isner insists there will be no significant added pressure when he gets to Winston-Salem. He has ranking points to defend, but he has always seemed to play well when points are on the line.
"There’s always pressure to do well when you do well the year before," he said. "But this is my sixth year on the tour. When I was first on the tour and I did well in an event and that event would come around the next year, I felt a lot more pressure to do well at that event. Now that I’ve done it a few times, I’ve won seven titles, I’ve made eight other finals and I’ve been in situations where I know how to play the big points, I don’t feel like there’s too much added pressure anymore. I just go out there and try to control what I can control, which is how I play and how I go about my business on the court. And for me, I’ve defended this title once, I’ve defended another (Newport), so I’m not putting any pressure on myself.
"I want to do well, and I want to perform well in front of friends and family in the Triad area, but I think I’ve done a good job of not letting that pressure get to me. And I’ve done well this summer so far, so that takes a little pressure off. I know I’m playing well and I’m sort of hot right now. I like the way I’m trending."
That’s what is called confidence. And that’s what he’ll definitely bring to Winston-Salem.
"John has been a really wonderful friend to the tournament," said WSO tournament director Bill Oakes, who also participated in the teleconference. "In the first year he was one of the first players to sign up, and he has always been the first player that we have reached out to as we get ready for the following year. He has been such an integral part of the event and we’ve just been lucky to have him. And we’re very excited that in his first two years, he’s been undefeated in Winston-Salem."