By John Delong
(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of updates on players who either played in last year’s Winston-Salem Open or have committed to play in this year’s tournament.)
John Isner turned back into the Marathon Man at this year’s French Open.
Now, after a roller coaster ride through the first half of 2013, the hope is that Isner can turn back into the Top Ten player that he was at this point last year.
Our two-time defending champion is finally back to full health after suffering the first significant injury of his career back in January. So it’s just a matter of regaining his form and confidence as he heads into his favorite time of the year – the grass court and hard court seasons.
At Roland Garros, the 28-year-old Greensboro native talked with WinstonSalemOpen.com
about the highs and lows of 2013 so far and where he is headed going into the summer.
"I’m happy with how I’m playing," he said. "I couldn’t care less what I’m ranked. I’m just very happy with how I’m playing right now, and I’ve got to be more consistent. I’ve had one really good tournament this year and that’s pretty much it, so I’ve got to be more consistent. But if I keep playing as I have lately, I think things will be good in my future."
Isner is currently ranked No. 21, but is likely to climb at least a bit after advancing to the third round at Roland Garros.
He beat Carlos Berlocq in straight sets in the first round, then rallied for a five-set win over fellow American Ryan Harris in the second round before losing a grueling 5-7, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (10), 8-10 heartbreaker to Tommy Haas the following day.
For sure, it has been a year unlike any other since Isner hit the ATP World Tour in 2007.
He was ranked No. 11 and was the top-ranked American entering 2013, but bad fortune hit quickly. In a loss to Harrison in Sydney in a warm-up event for the Australian Open, he felt a twinge in his right knee. Turns out it wasn’t just a tweak, but a deep bone bruise that had only one remedy – rest.
That forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open and eventually cost him valuable rankings points that he would have no doubt accumulated in Melbourne. The drop in the rankings started at that point. He would eventually miss four weeks..
"I sprained an ankle once, but this knee injury was the first injury that caused me to miss an extended period of time," he said. "It was frustrating because I could walk around and not feel it at all. From that, I would tell myself I could go out and run and play tennis. But that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t able to put much weight on my knee. It gave me some false hope when I was walking and doing nothing."
What Isner found was that his psyche was damaged every bit as much as the knee itself. He admits that he felt like missing the Australian put him behind the eight-ball a bit and that he pressed to do too much too quickly after returning. He was up and down for the next two months, reaching semifinals in San Jose and Delray Beach but going out early in Memphis, Indian Wells and Miami.
"The injury was a setback, but honestly it was more of a mental setback," Isner said. "It took a mental toll on me to go all the way over to Australia nad not be able to compete and leave – never get to Melbourne – leave and head back to the States.
"It’s tough being home when a Grand Slam is going on. It’s very tough. It’s not something I want to experience again. Mentally it took a toll on me. I feel like I pressed a little bit too much. Felt like I fell behind the rest of my competitors not being able to play in Australia. I felt like I was pressing a little bit when I really didn’t need to and putting a little too much pressure on myself to catch up to everyone else.
"But that’s the wrong way to go about it. So I know that in the future if it happens, I’ll handle it differently. Hopefully it won’t happen again."
All appeared back on the right path again by April, when he won on clay in Houston for the sixth ATP World Tour singles title of his career. It was an impressive week as he beat Harrison, Jack Sock, Richardis Berankis, Juan Monaco and then knocked off World No. 12 Nicolas Almagro in the finals.
But he was unable to build off it throughout the European clay court season.
He went through a stretch where he lost his first match in Nice, then again in Rome, then again later in Monte Carlo, and came to Roland Garros having lost four of his five previous matches.
Interestingly, Isner insists that that stretch DIDN’T shake his psyche, and that he came to Paris feeling all right about his game.
"I felt like I’d been playing well," Isner said. "Two matches I lost, it was a case where I won more points than my opponent but lost the match. I felt like I had been hitting the ball well ever since I’ve been over here in Europe. Just not really putting it together. So I just tried to stay positive. Certainly some down times – lose early in Rome and lose early in Nice. So I just tried to stay positive and keep working on the right things, because I am hitting the ball well."
The loss to Haas in Paris stung, because a win would have sent him into the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time in his career. He was up a break in the fifth set, needing to hold serve just twice more to complete what would have been the most-amazing comeback of his career. He lost the first two sets, and had fought off 12 match points in the fourth set.
Even in defeat, though, it was clear that the competitive fires are as bright as ever. Think about it: 12 match points. Yes, totally drained from a five-setter the day before in which he also rallied from a two-set deficit, he fought off 12 match points.
That tells him he’s definitely back on the right track.
"I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing," he said. "No matter what round it is, no matter what tournament I’m playing, if I’m playing with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence, normally it bodes well for me."