John Isner takes everything off
The tennis pro talks about what it takes to get in shape.
This is an extended interview from the 2013 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to The Mag today!
Why did you decide to pose?
JI: This is something I never would've imagined myself doing. Tennis players aren't jacked like football players, but we are certainly in good shape, and if my photo shows that in any way, that will be good.
Weight: 238 pounds
How did being the youngest of three brothers affect you?
JI: They toughened me up all the time. Probably the most infamous story in our family: My oldest brother took a U-lock bike lock and locked my head to the bedpost. And he didn't just do this for a minute or two; he did this for a couple hours. I was maybe 8 or 9, and he was maybe 15. It was so cruel. My parents weren't home, and I was sitting there with my neck in this weird position locked on this bed. In the long run, it was a good thing because it did toughen me up. I guess that's what you call "tough love."
What do you like about your body?
JI: I'm a tall guy; I'm 6'10". I've done a good job putting some meat on my bones since my freshman year of college. It's taken a lot of work. I was just under 200 pounds my freshman year; I was 6'8" and 198 pounds. Now I'm 6'10", 238. I could get heavier if I just ate a little bit more, but for my playing weight, I like being between 235 and 240. But back in college, I was a tall, goofy, underdeveloped kid. At 19, I didn't have a hair on my face. When I was 20, I looked 14. I feel I've grown out of that stage. I just turned 28, and, luckily for me, I look like a 28-year-old.
If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
JI: I would like to have a bigger chest, but right now, when I'm playing tennis, is not the time. A big upper body is not a great thing for tennis, and for me, flexibility is important. But when I'm done playing tennis -- which is hopefully a long way away -- I'll have time to work on that.
Tennis players make their money by staying healthy. My gym routine keeps me on the court. Anything I can do to make my body fresh and limber I'm going to do.”
Do you still call your belly your "reserve tank"?
JI: I've done a good job getting rid of the baby fat on my belly, but I used to call it that. That's because often when I'm playing I'll look more tired than I am. Sometimes it looks to my opponent and people watching like I'm absolutely done. But I'm always able to muster up enough strength to finish the match. I'm not too chipper out there, not running around, jumping up and down like some other guys, but when it comes time to play the point, I'm always ready. No point in wasting the energy.
What is one exercise you couldn't live without?
JI: There are two exercises I hate more than any others, but when I finish doing them, I'm glad: Bulgarian squats and glute ham raises. Bulgarian squats are when you put one leg on a bench and throw the other in front and do a weighted squat. It's like a single-leg squat. If I'm pushing it, I'll have 75 pounds in each hand. It's a love/hate thing: As much as I hate doing those squats, it makes me feel better a few days later.
What is your biggest challenge with your body?
JI: Keeping myself limber and not so stiff. I've been on the tour now for six years, so I've played a lot of matches and spent a lot of time on airplanes. When you take a long flight, you're sort of naturally stiff. Nowadays, I feel like I need to warm up five extra minutes to get myself feeling better. The most important part is lower-body activation to make sure my glutes and lower body are firing properly. That's when I'm feeling the best.
As a kid I was self-conscious because I was so much taller than everyone. But without my height I probably wouldn't be as good of a tennis player. It's a gift, and I've made something of it.”
I also travel with a chiropractor, and that's been beneficial. When we're on the road, he works with me every day. I'll spend a lot of time with him, getting aligned, massage, dry needling, whatnot. A lot of the top guys travel with their own trainers. Recovery is crucial. For the most part, tennis players make their money by staying healthy. My gym routine keeps me healthy and keeps me on the court. I've been this way since my freshman year of college, when I hurt my back. At that point, I made the commitment to be diligent about my body, and anything I can do to make my body fresh and limber I'm going to do.
Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
JI: As a kid, I was a little self-conscious because I was so much taller than everyone. A bad habit of mine used to be slouching. My mom and grandparents would try to get me to stand up straight and have good posture. Eventually, I realized my height was something I couldn't control, so I might as well accept it. I've certainly turned it into a positive, because without my height I probably wouldn't be as good of a tennis player. It's a gift, and I've made something of it.
How is your height advantageous to your game?
JI: It's an advantage on the court because it helps with my best shot -- my serve. Also, I'm not as quick as a lot of the guys I play, but I can cover more court in fewer steps. There are some lower balls that are tough for me, but overall I'd say it's an advantage.
What's the worst thing your body has been through?
JI: The 11-hour, 5-minute match versus [Nicolas] Mahut [at Wimbledon in 2010]. I wanted to win that badly. I felt awful afterward. On the second day of the match, when I woke up and we had to continue, I didn't feel too bad, but when I woke up the fourth day after the start of the match, all of the adrenaline left my body and I was an absolute wreck. I took the court the next round, but it was a lost cause. My neck hurt the most, but everything was tired: legs, arms, ass, everything.
Where is your happy place during a match?
JI: I try to think of ways to take pressure off myself. One way is realizing how fortunate I am to be playing a sport for a living. If I take that mentality onto the court, there shouldn't be any pressure because I'm already fortunate to do what I do.