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Steve Flink: John Isner wants to play the game on his terms

10/1/2013 1:00:00 PM

John Isner is in his hotel room. He has flown from the United States over to the China Open in Beijing, his first tournament appearance since the U.S. Open. The 6’9” Isner—believed by many astute observers to be 6’10”— stands at No. 13 in the 2013 Race for London on the ATP World Tour. He has four tournaments left on his schedule (including Beijing) for the year, and with a spirited run could claim a place among the top eight competitors in the game at the highly valued Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. That would be a first for the towering American, and a considerable accomplishment for the finest of all American players in today’s world of men’s tennis.

I reach Isner by telephone from my home the night before his 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3 first round Beijing victory over Di Wu, and ask him how he feels about possibly qualifying for London? “It would be really special,” he replies. “It is something that is achievable but something I am not thinking about too much because prior to this summer I was not even close to being in the conversation about possibly making it to that tournament. But I had a good summer so I guess I put myself in the conversation a little bit. The key for me now is to play good tennis outside of the United States. That is what I am trying to do. This is the time of the year I have never really done that great, but we will see if I can change that trend this year.”

Asked why that would be the case when the surfaces and conditions of the autumn events would seem suited to his game, Isner asserts, “I don’t think conditions have anything to do with it. It is actually about where I am playing and it doesn’t matter what surface I am playing on. I can play very well on any surface but I typically play better in the United States. I have to take on a different mentality because I am outside of my comfort zone when I am playing outside of the U.S. I am a little bit uncomfortable and it throws me off. But that is no excuse. I have got to get better.”

Clearly, across the entire 2013 summer campaign in the U.S., through a productive and inspired stretch in his homeland, the 28-year-old Isner performed remarkably well. He was the tournament victor in Atlanta, reaching the finals of Washington and Cincinnati, making the semifinals at Newport. Isner played his best brand of tennis in a very long while. How does he explain the way he gathered self-conviction every step of the way over the summer?

“It was all about confidence,” he responds. “I know it is the time of the year where I have traditionally played well in the summer in the United States. Just as you said, it was a case of me collecting some wins and doing pretty well in Newport to start it off. But the most important tournament for me, really, was Atlanta. I won that tournament and actually won four really close matches there. So that event gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I carried that into D.C., even though I was a bit tired when I made it to the final [losing to Juan Martin Del Potro]. I lost my first round match in Montreal [to Vasek Pospisil] but that was actually a blessing in disguise. I was rested for Cincinnati. I went there and obviously played extremely well.”

That may be an understatement. Isner’s journey to the final of that Masters 1000 event was astounding in many ways, his high point of the year thus far. As he recollects, “Really from the get-go of my first round match, things were just clicking for me that week. It is hard to explain. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I remember feeling very happy with how I was playing right from the opening game of the tournament. At the same time, I had a very tough draw. I beat, I believe, four guys inside the top 11 in the world, had a good win over Gasquet and another good win over Raonic. At that point, I was full of confidence. Going against Djokovic [in the quarterfinals] I had nothing to lose. At the same time, I took the court against him believing I could win. Fortunately for me, that happened. In the semifinals against Del Potro, I probably shouldn’t have won, but winning matches like that are really crucial for me and for my confidence going forward. Not often am I down a set and a break and down match point against a guy with a big serve like Juan Martin who is serving for the match. Not often do I come back from that deficit, but I did against Del Potro. I felt I was mentally strong that whole week in Cincinnati.”

In the championship match, he confronted none other than the highly charged and indefatigable Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard with the largest heart in the sport. Nadal bested Isner 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3) in a fiercely contested clash. Neither player broke serve. Isner never even faced a break point. The outcome was largely determined with Nadal serving at 5-6, 15-40,  in the first set. He served his way courageously out of that corner and deserved his triumph thoroughly in the end, but Isner competed honorably and gave one of his best ever performances in defeat. He simply fell narrowly short against the greatest player in today’s game.

“I played very well in that final,” recalls Isner. “Rafa made a lot of adjustments against me. He hit some serves on the ad side on some big points [including 5-6, 30-40]. in that critical first set] when I was leaning wide and he would go T. On the deuce side on his second serve, I was fully committed to running around my backhand and hitting a forehand because, for the most part, I thought he would hit his second serve at the same exact spot. But then he kicked it out wide on that deuce side of the court for a couple of second serve aces, so he made a lot of adjustments against me. I was not surprised. I forced his hand and he came up with the goods. That is why he has been the best player in the world throughout 2013. It was a match I could have won. It was just a point or two here and there, but he was able to win those points. He has a knack for winning close matches like that one. There is a reason he is at the top of the game now.”

Isner, of course, has competed against all of the premier competitors in the sport, toppling Djokovic twice, upending Federer once, performing impressively against Murray in a four set 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinal loss. He even took Nadal to five sets on the Spaniard’s home away from home at Roland Garros two years ago. Where does he place Nadal among the greatest competitors in the game?

“Oh, he is probably the toughest competitor in tennis,” says Isner. “And he is even tougher when he is full of confidence. He hasn’t lost a match in a long time. Playing Nadal is always tough, but playing against an extremely confident Rafa makes it even tougher. That is exactly what I went up against in Cincinnati so to play him in a very tight match like we had is pretty encouraging.”

After Cincinnati, Isner was debilitated in every way, hurting physically, drained mentally, nearly empty emotionally. He wisely elected not to defend his title in Winston-Salem, North Carolina a week later. But he still came to New York for the U.S. Open with very little spring left in his step. As Isner reflects, “I sort of pulled my groin a little bit in Cincinnati so that was why I had to pull out of Winston-Salem. I was feeling it a bit in New York, which is no excuse because at a certain point in all of my matches I had a lot of adrenaline going and I didn’t really feel it too much. But physically I wasn’t a hundred percent. I played a lot of matches heading into the tournament, and that is exactly what I wanted. I was pretty confident going into the U.S. Open. But for me, being so big, I don’t recover as quickly as a lot of these other guys. I played a pretty long physical match against Monfils in the second round and I felt that a bit in my third round match against Kohlschreiber. He played a smart match and he was just better than me that day. It is disappointing to go out in the third round. I definitely wanted to go a lot further, and in that particular tournament I wanted another shot at Rafa in the round of 16. I wasn’t able to get there. But still, all in all, I had a very good summer and I am pretty proud of that.”

In my view, Isner played too much tennis leading up to the Open, jeopardizing his chances to fare well in New York, leaving himself in a position where peaking for the last Grand Slam championship of the season became a nearly impossible task, leading to a second straight Open setback against the stylish Kohlschreiber. Isner, however, disagrees. He says thoughtfully, “I feel like this year I was in a great position to play some very good tennis in New York. The conditions in New York were actually really hot and humid. The humid part of it takes a huge toll on me. I always struggle in the high humidity. But I felt I did it right this summer. I knew I needed to play a lot to try to get my game back on track. That is what happened. I just ran up against a guy in New York who played well. Look, it can happen. I am not going to beat a guy like that every single time I step on the court with him.”

And yet, at his zenith, Isner has the propensity to overcome all of the game’s most successful players on any given day. He has demonstrated emphatically over a pair of stretches just how formidable he can be when at the height of his powers. Across this past summer, he accounted for Djokovic and Del Potro, and gave Nadal that memorably ferocious skirmish. The other time of overwhelming productivity for Isner was over the first half of 2012, when he struck down Federer in a Davis Cup match indoors on clay at Switzerland, upset Djokovic at Indian Wells, and defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in another clay court Davis Cup contest on French soil.

What will it take for Isner to turn his times of greatness into longer lasting themes that can propel him toward an even loftier level of the game? He answers, “I have got to be consistent all throughout the year and outside of the U.S.A. At times in my last couple of years I have sort of tripped up when I go over to Europe for the clay and even for the grass. I had a couple of matches that didn’t go my way and from that I would seem to get in a rut. For me it is a little bit of a tougher time of the year playing on clay in Europe, but I also have had good wins on clay over there. I feel I can actually beat anyone on those surfaces so for me it is a matter of maintaining a high level outside of the U.S. That is something I am always trying to work on.”

Isner is growing more accustomed to being the top ranked player in American tennis, a status he has enjoyed for large chunks of time in 2012 and 2013. How does he feel about that exalted status in his own country?

“I am pretty proud of the fact that I am the No. 1 player in my country right now. I ended last year as the No. 1 player in the U.S. as well. I believe I can go higher in the world. I have had some pretty consistent results these last four years. More than likely I am going to finish inside the top 20 in the world again this year and that would be four years in a row that I have done that. That is something I never, ever could have imagined myself doing. I am very proud of that. Being the No. 1 American is sort of a burden but I don’t feel any pressure from it. I just try to control what I can control on the court and that is mainly how I compete. I have got to believe when I take the court that I am going to be better than my opponent, and from that I should be able to rack up wins and points and whatnot. I don’t really focus on too many performance goals, but I know in my heart that I am capable of going a lot higher than where I am right now.”

In terms of competitive advantages and disadvantages, Isner is widely revered as one of the top two or three servers in tennis, and among the finest ever in that facet of the game. He perennially resides at or near the top of the charts in his success rate for holding serve. He finished 2012 at No. 2 in service games held (92%), finishing narrowly behind Milos Raonic. This year, he stands at No. 2 again at 90%. Conversely, he is ranked at the bottom of the list for return games won at No. 71, winning only 13%. That is why he becomes embroiled in so many long and strenuous contests, and it is the reason he has to rely so heavily on his capacity to come through in tie-breaks. He finished 2012 with the second best record in tie-breaks (41-18, .695) and he remains among the best in that department this season. Heading into Beijing, Isner was 33-15 in tie-breaks for 2013.

Isner speaks not only reasonably yet intelligently and even forthrightly about trying to improve his return of serve statistics. He says, “A lot of times it is not necessarily that I am not getting returns in play. It is more that I am getting returns in play but not doing much with them, and from that my opponents are running me side to side. I am not going to win many points playing that way. So it is a mindset that I need to go out there and commit to playing aggressively on my returns without being wildly aggressive. I want to win or lose the point on my terms. Even if I lose four straight points, as long as I play those points the right way I feel like my opponent is going to feel the pressure. It is important that I bring that consistent aggression every time to my returning. If I can do that I will find myself breaking serve and from that I can win more matches. Playing so many long, drawn out matches and pressure filled matches takes its toll on me. The less time I spend on court in winning fashion is a lot better for me than playing these two-and-a-half to three hour matches. So if I can break serve just two to three percent more than I have been doing, it can make a big difference to me.”

Isner is asked about his overriding goal to keep getting better at his vocation. I wonder if he can envision himself winning a major championship one day.

He responds, “I don’t think about it too much but I know if I am playing the right way I can give a lot of guys fits as I have done in the past. Bringing that consistent level to my game is the main thing I am working on. I have got to bring that high level a lot more times. The guys ranked ahead of me are bringing their ‘A’ game most of the time when they step on the court. I have got to do the same thing. The more I do that, the better I am going to become. Playing the right way, I believe I can have some big results.”

Isner will be boosted in his ambitious drive to fully realize his potential by Mike Sell, his coach since December of 2012. According to Isner, “It has been a good move working with Mike. He has been great. He doesn’t travel with me all the time and I knew it would be that way going in, but the bulk of the work we do is in our practice weeks. This year has been a bit tough because I virtually missed two Grand Slams: I didn’t play in the Australian Open and I had to retire in the second round of Wimbledon [with injuries] and those are the tournaments I want to do my best in. It has sort of been a stop and go season for me in 2013, but I feel I have turned the corner with those physical ailments and the work I have put in with Mike is showing itself now, so I haven’t second guessed myself too much. I am happy with my situation.”

The interview is concluding. Isner has come across earnestly, with plenty of clarity about himself and his game, with fundamental integrity. As he explains in his final remark to me, “It has been a long year so I am not going to think much now about 2014. I am focused now on the rest of this year. But one thing I know is I believe in myself and I believe I can always get better, so I am going to take that mentality with me into next year."
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.