Why John Isner Embodies American Tennis

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Why John Isner Embodies American Tennis
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

It took John Isner to make me realize how much tennis has changed in the last six or seven years.

During his run to the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington in 2007, the 6’ 9" American won five straight matches in third-set tiebreakers, besting well-known players Tim Henman, Tommy Haas, and Gael Monfils in the process.

By the time he fell in the finals to Andy Roddick, he’d hit 144 aces, a record for a non-Grand Slam event.

Some pundits called him the “serve du jour,” saying that he, Roddick, and Legg Mason semifinalist Ivo Karlovic, represented the last of the serve-based players.

Having grown up watching tennis in the ‘90s, it suddenly struck me how different the game had become. Since the serve sets the tone for the point, I had assumed that the great servers would remain near the top of the men’s game.

However, now power baseliners ruled, and the most important aspects for a player were a great forehand and good movement.

Rafael Nadal is the best example of this. While his awkward left-handed delivery has improved greatly since his first major victory in 2005, the best thing we can say about it even now is that it rarely loses matches for him.

Though his anachronistic game didn’t contrast heavily with Roddick’s, Isner would soon stand out for more reasons than just his freakish height.

At the 2007 U.S. Open, he powered his way through two rounds, upsetting Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen in the process, and setting up a date with Roger Federer.

In the third round, he did something only one other player did at the ’07 Open; he won a set from Federer, in (surprise, surprise) a first-set tiebreaker, before going down in four sets.

These two events suggested that the American might have a bright future in the game as, if nothing else, America’s Karlovic, who has won a few events and is perhaps the player every top 10 regular least wants to meet in round one.

Unfortunately, perhaps after the U.S. Open the novelty wore off.

Almost two full seasons later, Isner has yet to win a tournament, a single Grand Slam match, or even consistently make it out of qualifying.

This, with a serve that ought to put him within a few points of winning every set he plays.

Some will say that Isner’s problem is that he is one-dimensional. This implies that Isner’s serve is his only weapon, but as he demonstrated in his recent win over Marat Safin in Indian Wells, Isner’s volleys are sound and he has a forehand no one wants to hit a second serve to.

So what separates him from winning regularly, even as much as Karlovic does? For one thing, Isner has only been on tour two years.

Dr. Ivo’s first title came nearly seven years after his pro debut. Also, Karlovic, being European, probably has much more experience on clay and grass courts than the American, which explains why three of his titles come from those surfaces.

Finally, Karlovic has a one-handed backhand, Isner a two-hander.

For players with enormous serves, flat forehands and a net-rushing approach to the game, a two-handed backhand makes about as much sense as putting a collar on a pet goldfish.

Even if these problems were solved, of course, Isner would likely remain a niche player, a kind of big-serving relic from the decade past.

Though big servers from the ‘90s were often decried for turning Wimbledon’s latter rounds into serving contests with four-stroke (maximum) rallies, a single player of that sort might provide an interesting contrast in the top 10.

It probably won’t be Isner, though. His height helps greatly on serve, but once the ball is in play he clearly has four-five inches more than he knows what to do with.

Even after beating Safin, this was made painfully clear in his loss to Juan Martin del Potro, and again after his loss in Miami to David Ferrer.

There are only a handful of serve-based players in the game left, and virtually all of them come from Croatia (Karlovic, Ljubicic, Ancic) and the United States (Roddick, Isner, Querrey, Fish).

Though Croatia has a rising star in Marin Cilic, Isner’s fate pretty well reflects the status of his country’s tennis program; abundant size and power, improperly used.

In a game dominated by baseliners, there are few reasons for optimism about Isner or American tennis in general.

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