Commentary

Isner on a roll entering the US Open

Serve remains dominant, but will return game undermine American's success?

Updated: August 22, 2013, 11:00 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

One night during Wimbledon, I walked down Wimbledon Hill Road to have dinner with IMG's Carlos Fleming, the agent to Venus Williams, Cam Newton and Marion Bartoli, among others, encountering along the way some barometer of American tennis seemingly with every step.

On the steepest part of the hill I passed the mercurial Ryan Harrison, who had just lost to Jeremy Chardy earlier in the day. Near the door inside the restaurant, James Blake and John Isner sat with a group at a large table.

Blake was his usual affable and outgoing self, while Isner, easily one of the nicest people on tour, shook hands with me so uncomfortably it resembled the fleeting exchange between Sabine Lisicki and Agnieszka Radwanska after their semifinal. It seemed to require enormous effort, but he did his very best to be polite. One (or possibly all) of the following could have contributed to this frosty encounter:

  • He simply didn't notice his curtness.
  • Distant is the natural, appropriate order of things between players and writers. Neither side should ever get too close.
  • Maybe he was having a bad day, preoccupied with his health. The next day, he would retire 14 minutes into his second-round match with Adrian Mannarino.
  • Or maybe he knew that earlier in the year I said something along these lines: If John Isner is your favorite player, you may love huge, ridiculous, unstoppable servers, but don't really like tennis. I equated Isner to the likes of Manny Ramirez or Ted Williams, unbelievable hitters who weren't particularly proficient at anything outside the batter's box.

On second thought, I wouldn't have wanted to shake my hand, either. Still, discussion of Isner dominated the first part of dinner.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner's serve is dominant, but the rest of his game can undermine that advantage.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJohn Isner is playing the hottest tennis of his career. Can he parlay that into US Open success?
There is the serve. There is always the serve, a Nolan Ryan-level gift bequeathed from the gods. Fleming told Isner serve stories. I told them too, like the time in Atlanta in 2011 when an Isner second-serve kicker actually bounced over Randy Lu's head.

Then there is the dark side of Isner's game: the inability to return serve that makes his tennis life a perpetual tiebreaker. That weakness keeps him from perhaps being a top-five player and major threat, undermines the greatest weapon in tennis and keeps him vulnerable to early-round washouts to guys (Paul-Henri Mathieu, Alejandro Falla, for example) who have no business beating him.

"You're too hard on him. You're treating him like he's an underachiever, when in fact, he's an overachiever," Fleming told me. "How many guys have gone to school for four years like he did and achieved what he has? I'm telling you, it's really, really tough to be part of American tennis. The guy is a success story. He really is."

The US Open is fast approaching, and for the second time in his career Isner is again the most dangerous player in tennis. He's the best hope for an American to make some noise entering the second week.

Rafael Nadal is hotter, but Nadal is never to be underestimated in the first place, and even Nadal couldn't touch the Isner serve. After the injury at Wimbledon, Isner has returned to the North American hard courts with fury, focus and, of course, that serve.

With the American segment of the game in transition, Isner has had a hot month and transported himself back to where he was 16 months ago, the heir to Andy Roddick, successor to Mardy Fish as a top-10 player, and serious threat to anyone unlucky enough to be on his side of the draw.

Two weeks ago, the final precipitous drop of American tennis had arrived, at least statistically. When Isner dropped to No. 22 in the world, the American men did not have a player inside the top 20 for the first time since the introduction of the ATP computer rankings. Numbers were confirming what the United States Tennis Association had conceded long ago.

Then Isner started collecting wins, and he will come to Flushing likely ranked no worse than 15th. He is the leader of American men's tennis. None of the younger players -- Harrison, Jack Sock or Sam Querrey -- has topped Isner's high ranking of No. 9, and none has more impressive wins.

With the exception of Nadal (0-4) and Andy Murray (0-2), Isner has beaten every player ranked ahead of him whom he's faced, including No. 1 Novak Djokovic twice in their past three meetings, and Roger Federer. When he lost to Nadal in the final in Cincinnati last week, he never faced a break point despite falling in straight sets.

That speaks to Nadal's greatness, the enormous pressure resting on anyone facing an Isner service game and, also, Isner's greatest weakness: the return game that is preventing him from holding up hardware.

That he is, statistically, the worst returner of any highly ranked player on tour is also the underside of the vaunted "big-man tennis" phenomenon. Six of the eight worst returners are 6-foot-5 or taller.

Assessments of Isner are based on what he is -- the most reliable server in the game, with a 90 percent hold rate and 749 aces against just 78 double faults, best on tour -- as well as what he isn't -- only 12 percent of return games won, 72nd on tour, and generally not a factor outside the United States, where 1,830 of his 2,090 rankings points have been earned.

There is also the question of whether he can live up to his country's history, with his best showing at a major being the 2011 quarters at Flushing Meadows. Since that breakout performance, Isner hasn't been to even the fourth round in his past six majors.

Isner's big serve and big forehand game remain unchanged, but during the past month he has succeeded at imposing his game on his opponent -- never a problem when serving -- and seems to be showing more fight and more emotion when returning. Isner always attacked with his forehand, usually inside-out, but it appears to be more accurate, more deadly this summer.

He is the epitome of the modern American player with his first-strike mindset. He was able to trade forehands with Juan Martin del Potro, who beat him in the final at Washington, D.C., but whom Isner handled in Cincinnati by outhitting him and by being tougher. Isner beat Djokovic in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati by applying relentless serve and forehand pressure.

In all, Isner beat four top-10 players -- No. 1 Djokovic, No. 7 del Potro, No. 9 Richard Gasquet, No. 10 Milos Raonic -- in Cincinnati before losing to Nadal. Perhaps most impressive is how much more focused Isner has been defensively and the precision of his touch shots. At 6-foot-10, Isner has never been as graceful as he is imposing.

Previously accused of not being as intense in his return games, Isner made Nadal work on serve. The problem for Isner, though, is that he's been here before. After he beat Djokovic at Indian Wells and Federer at the Davis Cup in 2012, he appeared on the brink of a breakthrough.

The signature moment then was against Djokovic, when at 3-3 in the third set Isner faced a break point and pounded serves of 143, 143 and 139 mph. He had already beaten Federer at the Davis Cup, but even a loss to Federer in the Indian Wells final appeared to have made Isner a force.

Then he didn't get past the third round in the next five Masters 1000 and Grand Slams combined, crashing out in the second round to Mathieu at Roland Garros and the first to Falla at Wimbledon, and suffering a tough loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber at the US Open that saw Isner lose his composure on the court.

Over the past month, though, Isner is playing with a renewed purpose. Perhaps he is finally healthy and fresher. He is going into the last major of the year having beaten Djokovic and del Potro, and having never given Nadal a chance to break his serve.

It is difficult to enter a major in a better emotional place. Now we'll see whether his game can live up to that. 

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