Is John Isner's serve enough to win?

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
2:52
PM ET


Moments before his quarterfinal tussle with Marcos Baghdatis at the Citi Open, John Isner was asked what he needed to do to win. His answer was succinct -- and obvious. Serve well, he said.

Isner, of course, has one of the terrifying serves in tennis. He stands at 6-foot-10 and unfurls rockets from trajectories that seem unfair. Against Baghdatis, and then in his semifinal match against Dmitry Tursunov, Isner battered a combined 47 aces. It was a remarkable display of serving that thrust him into the final. But that’s where he ran into Juan Martin del Potro, another mountain of a man, who beat Isner 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 to win the title.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezJohn Isner leads the tour in aces, but that doesn't mean free points lead to short matches.
After struggling to greet the ball with any kind of consistency off Isner’s serve in the opening set, del Potro made a pretty bold tactical change. He moved back on his return; so far, in fact, that the linemen must have feared possible concussion, if not decapitation, every time del Potro set up for one of his voracious forehands. It was bewildering, almost comical, at first. But despite giving up all that landscape, the ploy worked quite brilliantly.

Del Potro was able to soften the blow from Isner’s serve and put the ball into play. But that maneuver, as beneficial as is was to del Potro, also showcased just how severely Isner is crippled by his inability to generate any kind of momentum when he’s not winning on his serve.

Isner has fared nicely since Wimbledon, reaching the semis in Newport, winning in Atlanta and finishing runner-up to del Potro in Washington, D.C. before losing his opener at the Rogers Cup. But for a guy who has a serve that big, Isner is still ensconced in no-man’s land when it comes to rankings and results at major events.

Is that a result of his all-court shortcomings? If you take a sweeping glance at the game’s top-flight players, you’ll notice they have very few impediments, if any at all. That’s the era of tennis we live in. The top guys are all five-tool stars. They move, defend, serve, volley and hit massive groundstrokes.

Let’s also remember, though, that Isner has a much different genetic makeup than players such as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. It’s not easy to maneuver with short bursts of speed at his elevation. So, in many respects, Isner has no choice but to play a one-dimensional game.

But this stat shouldn’t be overlooked: Isner has produced the best tiebreaker record in tennis at 29-10. As a matter of fact, in each of the past four years, he’s led the tour in tiebreaker wins, which is a testament to not only holding serve but his ability to cope under pressure.

How much would Isner have benefited from playing in the power paradigm of Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, et al? Sure, it’s not like Isner was going to squirm his way to a win against Sampras at the All England Club, but the reality was defense was less paramount than it is now -- especially given the speed of the grass and hard courts back then. I remember watching Goran Ivanisevic at Wimbledon and the US Open, and there were times when he wouldn’t even attempt to return serve if he knew he couldn’t break his opponent. He’d wait for a tiebreaker and rely on the fast courts and his hair-raising serve.

It wasn’t a horrible strategy. Ivanisevic reached the Wimbledon final four times, which included his long-awaited title in 2001. He also reached the quarters or semis in every other Slam. To date, Isner has one quarterfinal appearance (US Open, 2011).

For the most part, I subscribe to the theory that players should try win with their biggest weapon rather than spend boundless hours trying to hone their flaws, which, more often than not, will still be flaws at the end of the day. Look at Andy Roddick's backhand or Maria Sharapova's serve. They worked earnestly to improve those shots. And yes, both improved, but certainly not to the extent they had hoped.

And it’s not like there’s some kind of benign oversight on Isner’s part to become more well-rounded. Players know their weaknesses. But the bottom line is that is that whether Isner is too tall, not nimble enough or whether he just doesn’t have the ingenuity to leverage the rest of his game, we’ve essentially seen the same Isner for years.

In 2010, Isner won one title and finished the year ranked No. 19; in 2011, two titles and finished at No. 18; and last year, two titles and finished at No. 14. This year, Isner has slipped to No. 20, and to date, he has two titles.

Isner knows he can’t cede control of his biggest weapon, his serve, if he has any shot at succeeding. But because he struggles to break, Isner finds himself constantly knotted in tight matches. It’s an ugly irony when you think about it: All these free points he gets on serve lead to some lengthy matches. Eleven of his past 14 matches have featured at least one set that has gone to a tiebreaker.

And you have to wonder if all these laborious encounters take a toll. Despite leading the tour with 642 aces this year, more than 100 more than second place Kevin Anderson (in eight fewer matches, no less), Isner has a fairly vanilla 27-18 record.

So perhaps we should resign ourselves to the fact that Isner is what he is. He gives you exciting, protracted matches, and he gives the ace-count meter a darn good workout. He just doesn’t always give you the win.

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