Looking for Hope in John Isner

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Looking for Hope in John Isner
Phil Walter/Getty Images

For this American, watching John Isner play is frustrating on a pair of levels.

First, there’s the wariness of knowing that a young American player has a chance of notching an important win but hasn’t exactly proven himself to be Pete Sampras or even Andy Roddick in clutch situations.

Second, there’s the reminiscence of those of us who grew up watching tennis in the ‘90s —watching huge-serves like Boris Becker or Richard Krajicek hold serve with ease and take chances on their opponents' service games, knowing that they only had to win four points to essentially clinch the set.

Isner’s game bears a superficial resemblance to those guys, but he has some annoying habits they didn’t.

Watching him duel Tommy Robredo during the Hopman Cup a few weeks ago, I knew I’d see impressive serving. However, after a few games, his huge serving becomes so predictable that the mind drifts to other thoughts, such as: “Why the hell doesn’t this guy go to net more?”

We all know volleying is a far less employed tactic these days, but this match was one of the best indications yet that it doesn’t have to be. On his service games, as his huge first and sometimes even second deliveries forced short replies from the Spaniard, Isner was often drawn to net. He may not have the feel of a Becker (much less an Edberg), but his opponent saw very, very little success in threading passing shots through the 6’9” American’s enormous wingspan.

Yet on return games, he was content to stay back, even on Robredo’s second serves, rallying with the smaller, quicker man. He did hit a handful of line-painting groundstroke crackers, but it seemed 80-90 percent of these points ended with a winner from the other direction of the court, as the Spaniard realized early that with patience he would inevitably wrong-foot his towering foe.

I recalled how a Becker or a Krajicek would have chipped their opponent’s second serve and moved forward or blasted a flat forehand down the line, charged the net, and forced the other guy to hit a shrinking target. Those players missed approaches, and sometimes their opponents were sharpshooters able to find passing shots where none appeared visible.

But just knowing that the other guy was coming in, and that those kinds of passes were going to be necessary, was enough to get into their heads. In all but the mentally toughest opponents, this resulted in lower first-serve percentages, double faults, and unforced errors when they tried to keep their groundies just a little too deep.

I know I’m kidding myself; Isner will never be the American Krajicek, winner of a Wimbledon title and many Masters Shields, much less the American Becker. At this point, hardcore tennis aficionados of my nationality would settle for the American Ivo Karlovic: the guy who wins maybe one title a year, is a boon to our Davis Cup hopes, and makes top 10 players nervous when they see his name in their quadrant of a Grand Slam draw.

Sadly for us, Isner’s still working on equalling Karlovic’s status: He fell to Robredo that day in a third-set tiebreak, clinching Spain’s win over the U.S. in the Hopman Cup. A week later he improved on that result, beating Robredo and dogged French veteran Arnaud Clement to win his first pro title in Auckland. He’s currently ranked No. 28 in the world, his highest ranking yet.

Did that result give him momentum going into this year’s Australian Open? It’s hard to say. In round one he was somewhat fortunate against Italian Andreas Seppi, letting a two-set lead slip before pulling out the final set 6-4. He pounded 34 aces during the encounter and only committed 10 unforced errors. Normally, the latter would be a stat to boast of, but in Isner’s case it indicates that he wasn’t aggressive enough.

Isner’s next opponent will be Louk Sorensen, a 25-year-old Irishman currently ranked 284 in the world and playing in his first AO. If he wins that match (and he should), the tallest of the American player's next encounter would likely be with the streaky Frenchman Gael Monfils, whom he has a 2-1 record against. The most optimistic scenario for this American tennis fan would a fourth round encounter with No. 5 Andy Murray.

Just to make it that far would be an encouraging sign, as it would show that Isner is evolving into a dangerous player, if not a great one. With Andy Roddick and James Blake sitting out of Davis Cup this year, we’ll take encouragement where we can get it.

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