Men's Tennis: How Much Should We Read into Isner's Recent Clay Title?

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Men's Tennis: How Much Should We Read into Isner's Recent Clay Title?
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After injuring his knee in January and having mediocre results at Indian Wells/Miami and the Davis Cup, John Isner came roaring back this weekend. 

Isner defeated world No. 12 and clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro to win his first title of the 2013 season. His big serve came in handy, out-acing the Spaniard with a 6-3, 7-5 victory at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship. 

“I’ve always known I could play well on clay,” Isner said via ESPN. “It suits me well, the court is pretty slow which I like and the balls also pretty light. That’s normally a good recipe for me.” 

Overall it was a good week for Isner, defeating defending champion Juan Monaco in the semifinals and extracting revenge from last year’s final. 

But how much should we read into this as the ATP tour moves over to Europe for the clay season? 

First off, Isner made a last-minute decision to take a wild card at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, flying the day before his match and losing to Ernests Gulbis in three sets on Tuesday. Isner won the first set, but quickly fell apart in the last two, with a score line of 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. Jet lag was a major contributor to the defeat. 

But Isner had high spirits in his post-match interview (ATP World Tour): 

“I feel like I’ve turned that corner, I’m starting to play better so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m feeling good about what the rest of this year has in store for me. Anytime you win a tournament, ATP tournament, you’re going to have to beat some good players, and that’s what I did last week, so it’s real encouraging.”

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Isner has had success on clay, taking Nadal to five sets at the French Open, but can he get more wins on bigger stages this year?

Despite his quick European trip (he’s back home until the Mutua Madrid Masters), let’s start with the good news. Isner’s win this weekend is very encouraging not only for him, but for the outlook of American men’s tennis in the next month. After the Davis Cup in Boise, no one really knew what to expect from the Americans this spring. But Isner can play on clay, taking Rafael Nadal to five sets at the 2011 French Open and defeating Roger Federer in the Davis Cup last year. 

In Houston last week, Isner’s serve was the best it’s been all season, blasting past big-serving Almagro in the final. For not playing on clay since September, it was pretty impressive for Isner to win his first career clay-court title.   

On the other hand, this turnaround is vaguely familiar to the 2012 season. Isner was poised to make a run and was America’s best bet for the French Open thanks to his victories over Federer and Novak Djokovic in the spring. But he came up short and found himself in a long five-setter against Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round, losing 18-16 in the final set. Although Isner was prone to five setters at Grand Slams, the match in Paris was one he should have won. 

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In addition, this event last weekend was held in the US, not on true European clay. The title just isn’t the same compared to the other 250 events in Europe, thanks to the obvious pro-American crowd and depth of opponents. 

Will this tournament turn around Isner’s 2013 season? History tells us no, but I think despite his early-round exit in Monte-Carlo, Isner will have the best clay-court season among the American men. Most of Isner’s early-round exits last year were due to his lack of confidence. But, in his Monte-Carlo post-match interview, he seems like he’s more confident in his game moving forward. 

The Houston title was much needed for Isner, but he really needs to excel during this clay-court season to install belief back in his fanbase and regain the No. 1 American ranking.

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