Commentary

Time for John Isner to play big

Despite stellar service game, American still searching for big tournament win

Updated: January 29, 2014, 12:03 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

CHATHAM, N.J. -- Weird.

The first time Madison McKinley met her boyfriend, she says she thought he was weird.

And a bit awkward.

And a little goofy.

"It was like he hadn't hit on a girl in a really long time," she says, smiling, head slightly tilted, eyes wandering off to the side as she tries to recall the details of her first encounter with John Isner back in 2011. She's at a fundraiser for the Justin Gimelstob Children's Foundation, and because of that weird, awkward, goofy dude, she's on the couch in the green room hanging out with Brooklyn Decker and Anne V, gushing over Gimelstob's 4-month-old son, Brandon.

"I didn't even give him my number. He got it through a mutual friend. And then he just started texting me. Then I texted back. The next thing I know we're texting everyday.

"That's the thing most people don't know about him. He's a friendly giant. The most gracious, giving guy I know. But he's also really determined and he can do anything he puts his mind to. When he wants something, he goes after it. When we met I had no idea who he was. I wasn't really into him. Now here we are."

Yes, here we are: interviews, charity work, celebrity … sort of.

At 6-foot-10 and 238 pounds, Isner is the biggest guy in the room -- physically. Despite being the top-ranked American male tennis player for the past two seasons, he still comes up a little short in star power, overshadowed by some of the space's other occupants, like Andy Roddick, James Blake, actor David Duchovny and Mets pitcher Matt Harvey.

"He's a lot more fun-going than people give him credit for," McKinley says. "When you see him play live, he interacts with fans, he's funny. It just goes unnoticed for some reason."

Thing is, McKinley is hardly alone in her first impressions of Isner. When the country met him in 2007, we weren't that into him, either.

Sure, he was a four-time All-American from the University of Georgia, but even the most casual tennis fan knows colleges are not the breeding ground for Grand Slam champions. Plus, despite a warm smile and booming serve, the public's relationship with him lacked the zsa zsa zsu we're accustomed to having with athletes.

Isner is methodical, not fiery.

Reserved, not demonstrative.

Kinda boring, in that Pete Sampras/Tim Duncan sort of way. Except Sampras and Duncan have the kinds of wins that make their brand of boring engaging. Isner has eight titles but none have come in the kind of tournament that elbows its way into pop culture, raises a Q-rating, or leads to funny Discount Double Check commercials.

He had hoped to change things this year starting with the Australian Open, but was forced to retire in the first round because of a strained tendon in his left foot. It was an injury he had when he arrived to play in a warm-up tournament in Auckland, which raises the question: Why didn't he withdraw from that tournament?

"I had a cortisone shot before Auckland and wanted to give it a shot," he said. "I knew I couldn't show up for the Australian without some matches under my belt. I knew I couldn't play well there without some practice beforehand. So I figured I might as well play in the tournament to at least hit some balls, and I ended up winning.

"But when I got to Melbourne, all that adrenaline had worn off and the pain was too much. I had hoped it would get better and I could play through it, but I couldn't."

That sort of thing is a major reason Isner isn't a household name. A year ago, it was a bruised right knee that kept him from competing in Melbourne. His left knee forced him to quit play in the second round of Wimbledon.

"It's been a rough 365 days," he said. "Last year I overtrained in the off season, had some bleeding in my cartilage and couldn't play in Australia. It was a terrible feeling not being able to compete then, and it was an awful feeling not being to play this year.

"It just sets everything back."

And Isner doesn't have a lot of extra time for setbacks. He might have a fresh face, but at 28, he doesn't have too many more years to get the kind of win that could lift him up.

And by proxy, lift the sport up stateside.

It's no coincidence that tennis' decline in popularity here at home coincides with a humbling 10-year drought in the four biggest tournaments of the season. "We're Number 13" -- Isner's current ranking -- is not the kind of chant Americans can sink their teeth into.

"I know it's going to take something really special to open people's eyes, to get them to see me," Isner says. "I have had big wins in tournaments, but I haven't backed them up. I haven't had sustained success, especially in the majors. That has to change. That needs to get better."

He can start by shoring up his defense.

Last season, Isner won only 12 percent of his return games. The year before that, 11 percent. To get a sense of the field, in the past 20 years, 32 percent has been the lowest total to lead the tour.

Isner has vowed to be more aggressive by coming to the net more, but so far in this young season -- because of the foot injury -- it's been hard to see the payoff. Coming into the Australian Open, he was 92nd in return games won and 96th in converting break points. The first round of Davis Cup -- when he faces No. 6 Andy Murray in San Diego this weekend -- will be a better representation of a much-needed aggressive strategy.

In smaller ATP 250 tournaments, a player with Isner's serve -- he's won 64.6 percent of career tiebreaks, second only to Roger Federer -- can mask that. For example, in the Auckland final against Yen-Hsun Lu, he had 10 break point opportunities, converted none, yet still won in straight sets.

But the reason Isner has yet to win a Masters 1000 or an ATP 500 tournament, the reason he hasn't made it to the quarterfinal of a major since 2011, is that it's virtually impossible to return that poorly against top players and consistently win.

And it's hard to keep our attention if you don't consistently win.

"It's a lot of pressure to be the top guy, but I welcomed it," says Roddick, whose 2003 U.S. Open win marked the last time an American male hoisted a trophy in singles at a major. "When you're being touted at a young age like I was, you either run from the pressure or you embrace it. I embraced it. John has a different scenario. He was like every other kid in America until he was 22, so he's just now learning how to deal with everything -- the critics, the expectations, the hopes.

"I pissed you guys off a lot, often times on purpose, because it was what I felt I needed to do to keep my edge. John is such a good guy, a good heart. He's different. He handles it all differently."

Can different win big?

"I think he's too nice," Roddick says. "I want him to get more selfish. It's a tough position to be in and he's a grown man who makes his own decisions, and how he handles himself has been successful, but if he ever came to me, that's what I would say."

Roddick points out that Isner was playing in charity matches mere weeks before the start of the grueling season, sometimes on makeshift surfaces that are not that great, to support his friends.

"I love John. He's a great guy," Roddick says. "But you have to attack the offseason. If I were still playing, I don't know if I would be here."

 John Isner Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJohn Isner has had his share of injuries that have affected his ability to contend for a major.

In the den of Bob and Karen Isner's home in Greensboro, N.C., there is a photo in a crystal frame that sits on a table in the corner. The picture is familiar: their son hugging Nicolas Mahut after their historic three-day, 11-hour bout at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships.

"I didn't pee for nine hours," Isner's mom jokes. "I had seen him that morning [after the first day]. His toes looked like hamburger meat. It was painful to watch knowing he was in that much pain. I just wanted it to be over, to tell you the truth. After a while, I didn't care who won."

That, too, is a joke.

John Isner might be a nice guy, but you don't win a tour-leading 38 tiebreakers -- as he did last year -- by giving up when things get tough. And you don't learn how to fight through adversity from a distance.

"My mom tried to make me play golf, but when I was growing up girls didn't do sports that much," Karen says. "John was the last of my three children, so when he went to kindergarten, I finally had some free time. My husband had played tennis and so I picked it up and just loved it. I would play all of the time. Loved, loved, loved competing. And I do miss it. But after the colon cancer … I just can't run anymore."

Karen was rushed into surgery back in January 2004 for what was initially believed to be appendicitis. She was told otherwise when she woke up.

"John and I talked two or three times a day, every day, always have, even now," she says. "But when I was in the hospital it took me about two days to answer his call. He was calling me and calling me and calling me, and I wasn't answering the phone because it was his freshman year at Georgia and I just didn't want to tell him. I didn't want him to worry. When I finally did, he jumped in the car and was home in five hours.

"I knew he would worry about my health if I weren't at his home matches, so I went to every one. I didn't want my being sick to be a distraction."

Karen had chemo on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays every other week. John's home matches were on Fridays and Sundays. So she and Bob would make the trip from Greensboro to Athens to support John, even though Karen could barely get out of bed after chemo.

Even though she would spend the Saturdays in between the matches sleeping, vomiting, crying from the pain.

And she did this for six months, just so John wouldn't worry.

"What I do on the court will always pale in comparison to what she went through," he says. "Even in that 11-hour match, when my body was in so much I pain, I knew she felt way more mentally and physically exhausted fighting cancer than I did playing that match.

"So when I'm playing, I'm trying to keep it together as much as I can. The way she kept it together. She taught me how to fight."

And how to stay centered.

"If he lost as a junior tennis player, his life would be the same. If he won something big, it was the same," she says. "Tennis is not his whole life. For a lot of kids today, if they didn't have tennis they wouldn't have anything. He knows if he wins or loses, if he's top 10 or top 200, nothing else in his life changes because he's got us."

Which may be true but doesn't make what happened at the 2012 U.S. Open any less painful for her to talk about.

Isner had won the first two sets of his third-round match against the flashy Frenchman, Gael Monfils, and looked to be heading toward an easy victory before questionable calls -- and more shockingly -- the home crowd took the wind out his sails.

Perhaps they just wanted to see more tennis.

Maybe Monfils' dives and slides, smiles and winks hypnotized the crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium, tricking the locals into believing they were in Paris and that he -- not Isner -- was their guy.

All that is clear is that by the time Isner yelled at the chair umpire in frustration for calling a serve out -- a call that even left Monfils smirking -- it was the American who didn't feel at home. And when Isner left the court to change clothes, after dropping the third set 6-4, it was his opponent's name, not his, that he heard the crowd chanting.

He eventually recovered, winning the fourth set in a tiebreak (of course), but later that night Isner told reporters he was disappointed.

"I know those are people who paid for their tickets and they can do whatever they want," he said. "I just wish they hadn't done that."

His mother took the incident a little harder.

"I just didn't understand that reaction," she says. "I didn't understand what John did to deserve that. I was about to cry. I was stunned. John was stunned. I saw the look in his eyes. That just hurt my feelings.

"I would never not cheer for an American in another place unless they were a complete a--h---. I just think you should cheer for the American, especially in America."

Isner's father was also irritated by what happened that night, though he doesn't fault the crowd for wanting to see more of the showman Monfils. He just prefers to see more of his son.

"I didn't really know how good John could be until he played in his first pro tournament in Washington, D.C.," his father says. "College is one thing, but this was the big time. You have to understand, the goal was maybe win a scholarship and nothing more. Now he's playing at the highest level and playing well.

"When he's on his game, he can beat anybody, anywhere."

Which, if you look at recent results, could be closer to a premonition -- think Richard Williams predicting the success of Venus and Serena -- than familial hyperbole.

True, collectively Isner is only 3-12 against tennis' holy trinity of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, but most of those losses came early in his career. Since first cracking the top 10 in 2012, Isner has taken Rafa to five sets at the French, beaten Joker twice when he was No. 1, defeated Federer when he was No. 3 and dropped a host of other top-10 opponents who made recent appearances in a major final, including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro. Davis Cup will be the first time he's faced Murray since his four-set loss to him in the quarterfinals of the 2011 U.S. Open. That match took nearly four hours.

Granted, that's not enough to prompt an order of confetti. But it is an indication that his pops is being more than a cheerleader when he talks about his boy's potential.

"He is one of the few guys you can see challenging the top players," Gimelstob says. "He disrupts rhythm, he does things you just can't defend against. He's beaten Federer, he's beaten Joker, he can be dominant, he can get the country behind him, but he's got to be consistent."

John IsnerAP PhotoIsner has a big serve, but his defense has let him down at times.

And maybe a bit more forgetful.

That's the hardest part about tennis: learning to forget your mistakes -- quickly. If you don't, a little bit of confidence seeps out of with each swing. Soon, instead of ripping your forehand and taking the match, you're just keeping the ball in play, hoping your opponent makes a mistake.

The reason Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray have won 34 of the past 36 majors? On that stage, they just don't make mistakes.

"I'm imposing, but that's not what I am all of the time," says Isner, whose 979 aces were the most on tour last year. "When I'm playing my best, that's exactly what I am. When I'm most confident, that's exactly what I am. I'm going for my shots, I'm not worried about the results, I'm loose. But there are times where I haven't done that. When I'm really tight. That's when I tend to play back and be more conservative. That's when I'm beatable."

Which partly explains why a guy who won 90 percent of his service games in 2013 is still searching for a big tournament win.

"When things aren't going well, and I'm in a rut, I think about unnecessary things, shots I missed that I should not have, things like that," he says. "Sometimes I'm thinking about the result more than anything else.

"Winning a match is the most satisfying feeling, and sometimes when I'm playing I'm thinking about that feeling. On the flip side, leaving a tournament as a loser is the worst. You don't sleep at night and you toss and turn and think about what you could've done. When I'm not so confident, I'm thinking about that feeling."

John IsnerAP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek"I'm imposing," Isner says, "but that's not what I am all of the time."

John Isner posed nude for ESPN the Magazine's Body issue.

And in case he forgets, his compadres constantly remind him.

Roddick even went so far as to participate in Isner's own charity event in Greensboro, sporting a T-shirt with the nude photo of the host silkscreened on the front.

Aaaaaaaah, good times.

"I stretch a lot. I pop my knuckles a lot. I'm always fidgeting," Isner says. "But I like my body."

A proclamation that is a long way from the guy who used to slouch in a desperate attempt to hide his height.

"I didn't want to stand out before," he says. "Now I've grown into my body and I don't mind standing out. I used to duck even when I didn't need to. Now I duck only when I have to."

A healthy John Isner who no longer shrinks in big moments is a John Isner who might finally end the country's drought. And just maybe, make us pay attention.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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