Houston is home to the launching pad, and while some Americans aim for liftoff at this week's U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, the man riding the rocket serve hopes to heighten his ongoing elevation.
John Isner never has surpassed the quarterfinals in four prior Houston appearances, including three consecutive third-set tiebreaker losses. But he arrives in Space City empowered by victories over world No. 13 Gilles Simon and No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the red clay of Monte Carlo last weekend that clinched the United States' Davis Cup quarterfinal conquest of France.
Two of Isner's friends and part-time practice partners -- Mardy Fish, the top seed in Houston this week who faces ageless American Michael Russell on Thursday for a quarterfinal spot, and James Blake, whose comeback hit another bump in the road with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 loss to sixth-seeded Carlos Berlocq in the first round -- have held the tag of top-ranked American with varying degrees of success and longevity. But the 10th-ranked Isner, who trails Fish by 15 points and could pass him for the ninth spot in the rankings with a strong performance this week, does not seem to subscribe to Shakespeare's adage "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Ducking through doors is second nature when you stand 6-foot-9, but Isner has set a high ceiling for his goals and isn't shrinking from carrying American hopes on his shoulders.
"I still think my best tennis is two years ahead of me," Isner told the media in Houston on Tuesday. "I want to be that guy for American tennis. I want to keep climbing higher in the rankings and get to No. 9 and No. 8 and No. 7 and eventually to the top 5."
Although red clay may not appear to be Isner's ideal launching pad to attain his aspirational aims, consider in the past two months: Isner has toppled three of the world's top six-ranked players, also defeating No. 3 Roger Federer on the red clay of Fribourg in Davis Cup, and edging No. 1 Novak Djokovic in last month's Indian Wells semifinals. He surrendered serve just four times in those three wins. High-bounding topspin shots that can handcuff even the best players on clay -- see Rafael Nadal's heavy topspin to Federer's one-handed backhand -- actually sit up comfortably in Isner's sizable strike zone. The slow surface affords him the time to set up for his favored forehand, and Isner's serve is so formidable he could deliver his share of aces serving into a swamp.
"I don't feel like [my success on clay is] that surprising," Isner said. "I feel I can hold serve effectively on any surface. A lot of times, clay can play fast and the ball bounces high, and for me, obviously, that's really good if I'm hitting balls at shoulder level. That's better than hitting them at my knees. My clay-court results for my career haven't been indicative of how I can play on clay. If I can just break serve a little more over the course of the year, that's gonna bode very well for me because I hold serve quite a lot."
In addition to breaking serve, Isner, who is 12-3 in tiebreakers this season, knows he must get physically stronger and produce consistent results -- he followed his run to the Indian Wells singles and doubles finals with a third-round exit in Miami -- if he's to continue his climb to the upper echelon of the top 10.
"I will go back home [to Florida after Houston] and work with my coach, Craig Boynton," Isner said. "I need to get in better shape if I want to do good in these next two majors coming up and Masters' events. I need to be in better shape, put my head down, go back to work and get my body right."
In the aftermath of his Davis Cup triumph, the 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinalist was touted on Twitter as a Roland Garros threat by ESPN analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. Given six-time French Open champion Nadal's past dominance of the terre battue and Djokovic's current command of the rankings, you might think anyone backing Isner challenging for the French Open may have been spiking their red, white and blue Kool Aid with something stronger. But virtually no one in the tennis world could have foreseen Robin Soderling upsetting Nadal in 2009 to snap the Spaniard's 31-match Roland Garros winning streak, just as few envisioned 17-year-old Michael Chang's underdog run to the 1989 Roland Garros championship or unseeded Gaston Gaudio saving match points to beat third-seeded Guillermo Coria in the 2004 French Open final.
Consider that since 1999, there has been one unseeded French Open champion (Gaudio), three unseeded runners-up (Andrei Medvedev in 1999, Mariano Puerta in 2005 and Martin Verkerk in 2003), a 20th-seeded champion (Albert Costa in 2002) and a No. 23-seeded runner-up, Soderling, in 2009. Remember, Isner pushed Nadal to five sets in the 2011 French Open first round.
That's not a call to pencil the former all American at Georgia into the final four of your 2012 French Open draw, but don't be surprised when the second week dust settles to see Long John still standing.