WSO Player Update: John Isner
(Editors 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 playing in this year’s tournament.)
By John Delong
Our defending champion has the entire tennis world buzzing these days.
John Isner has skyrocketed up the South African Airlines ATP Tour rankings since winning the inaugural Winston-Salem Open last August, and recently he vaulted into the Top 10 for the first time in his career.
In the past two months, he has scored victories over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic -- Federer in the United States’ Davis Cup first-round victory at Switzerland, Djokovic last week in the semifinals at Indian Wells. He wound up making his first Masters 1000 singles final by beating Djokovic, before Federer exacted revenge in the final.
That’s good stuff, and it might not be much longer until he overtakes Mardy Fish – his teammate when the U.S. battles France in the Davis Cup quarterfinals April 6-8 – as the top-ranked American player.
Remember all those times when Isner said he wanted to be remembered for more than his marathon, 11-hour, 5-minute match against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon two years ago?
Well, that time has definitely come.
Now, the Greensboro native is the one of the game’s fastest-rising stars, equipped with the confidence (and monster serve, of course) that will make him a threat on all surfaces.
"In college, I never thought I would be in the Top 10," Isner said while at Indian Wells. "But now that I’m in t he Top 10, I think I can keep climbing higher. I’m just going to keep on riding this wave I’m on and see how far it can take me."
Isner’s friend and fellow Tampa resident James Blake, who was the last American player to beat a World No. 1 back in 2008 when he beat Federer in the Beijing Olympics, said during the Sony Ericsson Open that he was thrilled to see Isner having success.
"It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy," Blake said.
Of course, this isn’t just happening by happenstance, or simply because of Isner’s monster serve that reached as high as 143 mph against Djokovic. Isner’s return of serve continues to get more aggressive, and his entire game seems to be more economical.
"John’s someone who has worked hard, done everything the right way," Blake said. "You know, it’s not easy. It looks easy at 6-10 with that big serve, but he’s put a lot of work in on the rest of his game. You don’t get to the Top 10 with just a serve.
"I was talking to someone who isn’t that involved in tennis trying to explain that. Anyone can have a fluke win. You can beat a top player one time. But there’s no way anyone can take away being in the Top 10 because that’s a full year of good results, and that’s impressive. No matter what you do in your career, you can hang your hat on that because you’ve been pretty darn successful.
"I’m really proud of him," Blake continued, "and the thing is, he’s still young in terms of tennis years, because he didn’t start until he was about 22, and he can get better I think. The way he was playing against Novak – Novak’s playing as well as anyone in the world and some of those points there was nothing he could do against John. A lot of points, there was just nothing he could do because John was playing too aggressive, too big. I just think that at that size, it looks easy but it’s not. He’s doing some impressive things out there that not many people can do. I’m real happy for him and I hope he keeps it up."
It’s nice to think that Winston-Salem is where this surge all started.
Isner had won at Newport earlier last summer. But he went out in the early rounds at both Masters 1000 tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, and saw his ranking drop as low at No. 47 in late July. He came to the WSO ranked No. 28.
He played the local favorite’s role to the hilt and beat Dudi Sela, Jarkko Nieminen, Marcos Baghdatis, Andy Roddick and then Julien Benneteau in the finals for his third career title.
Then it was off to New York for the US Open, where he continued his momentum all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to Andy Murray. Along the way, he beat Baghdatis, Robby Ginepri, Alex Bogomolov Jr. and Gilles Simon.
He then opened more eyes by reaching the semifinals of the Paris Masters 1000 in November, with wins over Stanislas Wawrinka, Igor Kunitsyn, Feliciano Lopez and World No. 5 David Ferrer, before losing to French favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
He went out in the third round of the Australian Open in this year’s first Grand Slam, then went to the quarterfinals in Memphis and semifinals at Delray Beach.
Then came the first signature win, over Federer on indoor clay in the Davis Cup first round. It was a stunning, dominant victory, the highlight of a 5-0 U.S. sweep that moved the Americans into quarterfinal action at France.
"I knew going into this year that I had the tools and I had the game to be able to, you know, at least compete with these guys," Isner said. "I take the court no matter who I’m playing expecting to win and believing to win. There’s really no reason to take the court if I believe otherwise. So the win against Roger was very big for my confidence, and obviously the win over Novak will be very good for my confidence also."
The win over Djokovic came after Isner beat Federico Gil, Monaco, Matthew Ebden and Simon to reach the semis.
He was upset by Florian Mayer in the third round of the Sony Ericsson Open, showing a bit of emotional fatigue from the previous week, but that shouldn’t stop the momentum he has going into the Davis Cup quarterfinal.
Isner told reporters at Indian Wells that he is surprised by all the recent success, but not satisfied by it. He now has Masters 1000 Series and perhaps even a Grand Slam title among his goals.
"I’ve just kept surprising myself after each year," he said. "After a certain point – I think when I reached the Top 50 in the world, that’s actually when I actually did believe I could crack the Top 10.
"But I’ve just kept improving. I’ve always been a late bloomer. I was a decent junior, nothing special. I was a decent player in college my first years. I became the No. 1 player in college my junior year. So I’ve always improved as I’ve gotten older. And I am 26, which isn’t exactly young, but I feel like my best tennis is ahead of me. I don’t quite have the miles on my body that a lot of other players have, because I haven’t been out here since I was 17 or 18.
"So I have surprised myself. But now that I’m inside the Top 10, I feel like I belong there. I want to try my best to, you know, stay in the Top 10 for awhile."