Last year, it seemed as if January and February decided to gang up and give John Isner a career-ending whooping.
The North Carolinian did not win a single match in the first month of 2018. At the ASB Classic in Auckland, where he has won two titles, he failed to advance from the Round of 16. At the Australian Open, he lost in the first to a relative unknown.
Nobody would have blamed Isner, 33, if he’d packed up his rackets for good. Pete Sampras was the same age when he retired in 2003. Andy Roddick gave it up on his 30th birthday, and only two months ago, Andy Murray, 32, announced that his 2019 Wimbledon appearance would be his last. Sure, there are warhorses like Federer, Agassi, and Connors who have defied the march of time, but for most mortals the advent of one’s 30s is not only a milestone but also sometimes a millstone.
Even Isner admits it was not the most promising start. “I began the year [and] of my first seven matches, I lost six of them,” he says. “I was playing poorly, got off to a bad start, and things sort of snowballed from there. I played well, but I didn’t do the right things at the right times, which had been the story of my year . I was losing close matches, and I just wasn’t playing the right way.”
Still, he had reason to look forward to the 2018 BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. In 2012, he gave Federer a scare in the finals; and he had always done well playing in the Coachella Valley. “I think it’s very good … for my game. The air is pretty thin there, so the ball moves through the air quickly. And the courts are also pretty gritty, which is what I like. I’ve always played well at Indian Wells.”
He also had new coaches in David Macpherson and Rene Moller, the former reputedly an expert in motivating and instilling self-confidence. Isner was either going to turn it around at Indian Wells … or the season might be a long slog.
Initially, it was as if the midwinter doom had followed him into early spring. His Round of 64 opponent was Gaël Monfils, one of the first giants Isner felled when he came on the scene in 2007. It was a close match and one that was familiar to Isner followers. With his dominating serve, there was no break of service. In three sets, it all came down to tiebreakers. Only one of three went Isner’s way.
Normally, Isner would have headed home to Dallas, except that he was paired with Jack Sock for doubles. “Doubles is not a priority of mine. I play Indian Wells every year, but outside of that I sort of decide at the last minute if I want to play doubles,” Isner says. “I don’t play doubles in Grand Slam events. I think I played in only five or six events all year, and I played with Jack in two of them.”
From the moment Isner and Sock took to the courts, they were unstoppable. They knocked off formidable opponents like Ivan Dodig and Rajeev Ram in the quarterfinals, followed by pretournament favorites Oliver March and Mate Pavić (who began the season by winning three of five tournaments). Their opponents in the finals? Who else but the Bryan brothers, the most successful doubles team in history with 16 Grand Slam titles and 114 tournament wins. It was the first all-American doubles final at Indian Wells since 1981. Fans were not disappointed. The underdogs took the first set in a tiebreaker, but then the Bryans fought back in the second set to take the lead, 4-2. Isner and Sock broke back and took the title in a second tiebreaker.
“[Sock’s] nickname in the locker room is Plus One,” Isner says. “Whoever he’s playing with, he’s going to do well in doubles. In my estimation, he’s the best doubles player in the world, and it’s something that he never, ever practices because he’s a singles player. He was a top 10 singles player last year. He knows his way around a doubles court. He’s so natural at it. I’ve been the beneficiary of that before.”
The doubles title he won last year at Indian Wells would not only change the trajectory of Isner’s season but his entire career.
“That was huge for me,” he says. “It got me that feeling of winning back. I was able to draw a lot of confidence from [the doubles title]. I went to Miami with a little bit more confidence.”
“I played one pro tournament after my junior year, and I made the finals. Fast-forward 365 days, I went and played the same tournament.
So, I was defending those points
right out of the gate.”
John Isner loves sports. All sports.
Don’t get him started on the Carolina Panthers. You’ll be there all day. The most agonizing moment of Isner’s youth came at 14 when he had to choose between basketball and tennis. Already 6 feet, 3 inches in junior high school, he might have joined the legion of stars that have played for coach Kat Duke.
“I played just as much basketball as tennis growing up,” he recalls. “I couldn’t keep up playing both of them. I was missing basketball games and practice or tennis tournaments and practice. I was doing both at a very high level. At that time I told myself that I had a really good shot at getting a college scholarship to a very good school to play tennis.”
His parents played tennis recreationally a couple times a week, but they were far from the Richard Williams/Mike Agassi/Peter Graf parent-coach nightmare. With two older, athletic brothers, Isner’s parents simply relied on the natural selection of sibling rivalry and competitiveness. Isner has often recounted following his brother to the neighborhood tennis courts, vowing to someday beat him. The day he finally achieved his goal, it was obvious he had the right stuff. Though he graduated from high school in his native Greensboro, he also attended Saddlebrook Academy, the famed tennis mill in Tampa, where his classmates included James Blake and Mardy Fish.
The scholarship came from the University of Georgia. By the time he was a junior, Isner was the top-ranked college player in the United States. Unlike John McEnroe (Stanford) and James Blake (Harvard) who dropped out to turn pro, Isner was never tempted. “I never even considered going pro,” he says. “I was having too much fun at school. It’s a cliché, but it really was the best four years of my life. It was so much fun going to practice and begrudgingly getting up to go to class … and going out with my friends. I enjoyed the college experience.”
As a sports fanatic, Isner dreams of stats every waking moment. His own numbers include some impressive firsts. One stat of which he was unaware is that he is the first top 10 American player to finish college since Arthur Ashe.
Of course, the argument for joining the pro ranks when you’re ready (regardless of your academic status) is that even NCAA champions have to slog their way through qualifiers and Futures events. Without consistent and significant wins, journeymen players might find themselves in their mid-20s before they ever make the tour, and even then, they have to hope for wild cards just for the simple pleasure of Rafa beating the crap out of them in the first round.
Isner was lucky, and he knows it. “I played one pro tournament after my junior year, and I made the finals. Fast-forward 365 days, I went and played the same tournament. So, I was defending those points right out of the gate. I never had to play another Futures event.”
In matches where Isner does not pull it all together, there is frequently a stalemate. he holds serve, often easily, but does not capitalize on that momentum to break his opponent’s serve.
Isner launched his professional campaign in 2007, and after middling success he beat three seeded players to win the Lexington Challenger. His ranking soared from 840 to 416 in a single month. A week later he took advantage of a late withdrawal to ride a wild card into Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C., where he beat top 100 players, including Tim Henman, Benjamin Becker, Tommy Haas, and Gaël Monfils, to reach the final against Andy Roddick. Though he lost to the U.S. Open champion, his year-end ranking was 106. In four months, he had leapfrogged more than 700 players. From the 2008 Australian on, he would only play in ATP-level tournaments.
Isner attributes his momentum to nothing more than the fact that he “was very used to winning. I was winning so much in college that I was very confident. When I left the college scene I carried that confidence into the pros. Another thing that helped was that not many people knew who I was or knew about my game. I also didn’t have any pressure on me because everyone I played was ranked ahead of me. So I was going out there as the underdog and swinging free.”
The big man made his U.S. Open debut that year, defeating a 26th seed in the first round and advancing to the third, where he ran into Federer, who, as Isner puts it, “was at the peak of his powers.”
To the raucous New York crowd’s surprise and delight, Isner proceeded to take the first set off the Swiss champ — one of only two players at that year’s championship to win a set from him. “I won the first set, amazingly,” says Isner, still marveling a decade later. “But I didn’t win much after that. But to play him, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, four months after I finished college, was pretty remarkable.”
In 2009 Isner started working with coach Craig Boynton. Despite his impressive debut in 2007, the next year he suffered from what he calls “the sophomore slump — I didn’t do well at all.” According to Isner, he and Boynton formed a close personal and professional relationship, one that helped the young player “get in the right mindset. It worked out magically. Since 2009, I’ve been on the right path.”
In the beginning, there was the serve. And if Isner’s first serve didn’t blow you off the court, his second serve would. And if you managed to return one of those serves, you prayed you didn’t hit to Isner’s lethal forehand. David Macpherson, Isner’s coach since the beginning of last season, says that fearsome skill set has only improved over the last 10 years, along with his net game and backhand ground strokes. Boynton and Macpherson (and Justin Gimelstob for a couple years in between) have earned their keep working on his focus, confidence, and developing what Macpherson calls “imperiousness to adversity.” In the coach’s view, a collapse in self-confidence has a direct correlation to technique. “When [John] isn’t playing well, it’s often mental. [It] translates to his footwork, because at his size, if his footwork isn’t sharp then we’ve got problems. That’s the barometer for him. When he’s not moving his feet well, it’s hard for him to break serve, win baseline points, or return serve.”
In matches where Isner does not pull it all together, there is frequently a stalemate. He holds serve, often easily, but does not capitalize on that momentum to break his opponent’s serve. The result is three- and five-set matches decided on tiebreakers. Sometimes it goes Isner’s way, sometimes not.
The most famous example of this is Isner’s match with Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in 2010 at Wimbledon. The first half of the year had been extraordinary for him. He won his first ATP title at the Heineken Open in Aucklund, advanced to the Round of 16 at the Australian (where he lost to eventual champion Andy Murray), was selected to play singles and doubles in Davis Cup play against Serbia (the United States lost), reached the fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open before succumbing to world No. 2 Rafa Nadal, and played in the finals at the Serbian Open where he failed to convert on a match point and lost to fellow American Sam Querrey.
Ranked No. 19 in the world entering Wimbledon, he faced the unseeded Mahut, a champion doubles player. The match started in fairly standard fashion, with each player handily winning a set. They divided the next two sets in close tiebreakers. Then came the fifth. Because Wimbledon requires a two-game margin of victory in the fifth set, the match wouldn’t be decided for three days. They played a total of 138 games with the American finally prevailing 70-68. With the rules now changed, it will stay in the record books as the longest match ever played.
In matches where Isner does not pull it all together, there is frequently a stalemate.
He holds serve, often easily, but does not capitalize on that momentum
to break his opponent’s serve. The result is three- and five-set matches decided on tiebreakers.
Sometimes it goes Isner’s way, sometimes not.
On one hand, the mental toughness on both men’s parts to stay in the match was almost superhuman. It would be absurd to fault Isner for any lack of belief or confidence under such circumstances. On the other hand, as a singles player, Mahut isn’t in Isner’s class, and the latter should have finished him off in the fourth set. As it was, Isner made it to the second round, completely spent mentally and physically, and was beaten by a guy he normally should have dusted off the court.
On the contrary, Isner thinks it was a case of two equally matched opponents. “He didn’t give an inch, and I didn’t give an inch. Both of us were mentally strong during those three days. It’s funny because I was working with [Boynton] in hot, steaming Tampa, Florida, and he said before we left [for Wimbledon] that I could play 10 hours on the court after training in this heat. And I played 11.”
Over the next couple years, he worked diligently and steadily to garner a few more ATP wins and his first Masters final. There were some big disappointments, such as a first-round exit at the 2012 Wimbledon, but also some huge triumphs. At the 2012 French Open, he solidified his reputation as the Marathon Man by playing the second-longest match ever at Roland-Garros: five hours and 41 minutes. Among the highlights of that season was a defeat of Novak Djokovic at the Indian Wells Masters and a finals appearance against Federer, to whom he lost in straight sets.
By the end of 2015, Isner had nabbed his 10th ATP title, beat Federer in straight sets at the BNP Masters in Paris, and reached a career high No. 11 ranking. There is no denying that Isner was progressing into the top tier of his sport. But dramatic results in the Grand Slams and marquee tournaments like the BNP Paribas Open were proving elusive. His best slam result of the year was reaching a fourth-round matchup with Federer at the U.S. Open. Then in 2016, he reached a Masters 1000 final in Atlanta but lost to Nick Kyrgios. The year was most memorable for another marathon match at Wimbledon, this time against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but for the first time since 2009, he ended the season without a singles title. Though he achieved his 12th ATP title in 2017, his best result was a victory at the BB&T Open in Atlanta. Hovering at the edges of the top 10, he was now 32 years old with declining results, foretelling either a long, ignoble slide in rankings or imminent retirement.
“You play for as long as I’ve played, there’s always going to be ups and downs,” he says. “There are always going to be patches where I’m not playing as well, and I’m not confident. But when all the dust settles, one thing remains: I’ve found myself in the top 20 in eight of the nine years I’ve played [professionally]. And  was my best year to date, ending inside the top 10. So that’s very encouraging.”
“There are definitely some times on the road
when all I want to do is get home.
I enjoy my time at home so much.
But, look, sometimes duty calls
and you have to get out there and play.”
So what turned around in 2018 to silence the doomsayers?
Well, obviously, the doubles win at Indian Wells with Sock was the start, but Isner’s momentum picked up when he next went to Miami and won his first Masters 1000 title, defeating Alexander Zverev in the finals. Reaching the fourth round at the French Open was a decent result, but probably the most memorable competition of the year was his semifinal match against Kevin Anderson. It was his furthest penetration of a Grand Slam of his career. In an epic match reminiscent of his slugfest with Mahut, he and the South African took it to five sets, 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4, 26-24, the fourth-longest match in tennis history. And with Isner at 6 feet, 10 ½ inches tall and Anderson at 6 feet, 8 inches, it was also one of the tallest Wimbledon matches ever. While Isner didn’t prevail (Federer destroyed a visibly worn Anderson in straight sets in the final), he took the momentum to his old favorite, the Atlanta Open, and came out victorious.
Aside from his confidence on the court, Isner drew power from his home. He married his wife, Madison McKinley, in December 2017, and in 2018, she gave birth to their daughter, Hunter. When he spoke to Palm Springs Life in November, he apologized for being late on the call. “We had to run out and buy more food for Thanksgiving,” he said, excited about the feast they were preparing. When talking about his daughter, he used the word “magical.” He is a man clearly besotted with family, which, he says, has helped solidify his game.
“[Isner’s family] has been a huge help,” Macpherson says. “To have that perspective, to have more important things in your life than tennis, is helpful for a lot of players, but especially for John. When it was just tennis in his life, it consumed him, put too much pressure on him. He’s at a great stage in his life where he’s trying to accomplish things on the court and doing a very good job of it, but at the end of the day, it’s not the most important thing in his life. His family is.”
“Having a stable home base is very important,” Isner says. “There are definitely some times on the road when all I want to do is get home. I enjoy my time at home so much. But, look, sometimes duty calls and you have to get out there and play.”
With this newfound focus, contentment, perspective — whatever you want to call it — Isner was looking forward to the 2019 season. However, like last year, it has been a rocky start. He lost to Taylor Fritz in the Round of 16 at the Auckland Open and then to American newcomer Reilly Opelka in the opening of the Aussie Open — a match with four sets, each decided by a tiebreaker. Nevertheless, if he stays true to history, his season may turn around at Indian Wells. And there’s still the elephant question in the room: Is a Grand Slam final within reach? “He’s close,” Macpherson says. “Staying calm and converting opportunities … he’ll have a slam in his future.”
Isner’s not putting slam pressure on his shoulders. “I want to play high-level singles as long as I possibly can. I’ve had a good career, and I’d like to keep it going as long as I can, but when the time comes, when I’m not playing at a high level, then I’ll hang it up.”