Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Setting the right priorities
By Ed McGrogan
The past few days could not have been easy for John Isner.
On Saturday night, with a spot in the national title game on the line, his beloved University of Georgia football team suffered a heartbreaking loss to Alabama. If tennis players ever introduced themselves on TV by announcing where they attended school, like on certain NFL broadcasts, the former Bulldogs great would be a natural. In the meantime, Isner has proclaimed his pride by occasionally wearing red-and-black apparel during matches, and a college cap to his news conferences.
John Isner needs to refocus for 2013.
But before the Dawgs failed to grasp a spot in college football's championship and tumbled into the Capital One Bowl, Isner experienced another sort of separation: He ended his coaching relationship with Craig Boynton.
The two made a great team since joining forces in Saddlebrook three years ago, as I saw in person when I met Isner for a Tennis Magazine cover story earlier this year.
That camaraderie and comfort surely had some correlation to Isner's career-best results this past season. In addition to cracking the top 10 for the first time, Isner defeated Novak Djokovic to reach his first Masters final in Indian Wells, and toppled Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup competition, with both upsets taking place on European clay, a historic quicksand for U.S. players.
All of these accomplishments made Isner's decision to part ways with Boynton rather puzzling, but the big man's quote in The New York Times was the trump card: "I just felt like it was time for a different voice."
In March, Boynton told me bluntly during an Isner practice session: "He's got to play shorter matches at Slams. There's no getting around that."
That was said shortly after Isner's five-set loss to Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open, which happened one round after he beat David Nalbandian 10-8 in the fifth. Isner went on to lose five-set matches at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, none of which occurred during the second week.
It's not as if Michael Sell, Isner's new coach, can spin Boynton's words any differently -- it's clear as day what has been holding the American back from greater glory at Slams. But on the whole, Isner should be encouraged by this past season. He has proved that he can beat the best players in the world in best-of-five set play -- just not at the majors.
He did so with an ultra-aggressive mentality, a philosophy Boynton stressed during that practice session (especially on the return, which Isner used to great effect against Federer in Davis Cup) and one Sell should continue to cultivate. With his weapons and shortcomings, Isner can never be aggressive enough.
We know what Isner has to do on the court -- "be true to his game, and play the way that he has to play," as Boynton said.
Off the court, Isner should take a hard look at his schedule, which was packed in 2012.
Part of that was due to his success in Davis Cup, which accounted for three weeks' worth of travel, practice and play. But part of that was Isner's own doing. After helping the United States beat France in Monte Carlo, Isner skipped the Masters tournament there and flew across the Atlantic to play Houston, then returned to Europe for the red-clay swing. In between Wimbledon and the Olympics, both held in London, Isner played (and won) Newport, then reached the semis in Atlanta, an event he has a strong connection with. He also decided to play his hometown tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C., held immediately before the U.S. Open, which to his credit he won in dramatic fashion.
Choosing which tournaments to play, and which to say no to, cannot be easy decisions for Isner, an extremely likable man who's currently in demand.
"I definitely enjoy playing them," Isner told me in reference to the ATP 250s in Atlanta and Winston-Salem. "I'm lucky because, in a way I feel like I have two hometown events. Especially the one in North Carolina; although I'm playing a tournament, it doesn't feel like I'm on the road at all because I'm staying at home. After a match, instead of going to my hotel I went back to my house, threw the ball to my dog, had my mom's cooking, I felt like I was in high school."
It all comes down to the 27-year-old's priorities, and if he listens to the majority of the media, he'll eschew those smaller tournaments to better prepare for the peaks in tennis' yearlong slog. There will also be Sell's input to consider. The former coach of Monica Seles -- and perhaps as important, a four-time All-American at the University of Georgia -- should offer a new perspective that defines this important, upcoming season, with Isner still in the prime of his career.
But Isner should, of course, listen to himself first.
And why not? Based on his recent achievements, he's clearly doing something right.