By Jane Voigt
March 29, 2018 — John Isner is hard to miss. At six-feet-ten inches tall he towers over just about anyone unless an N.B.A. team is around. But when he first came on the pro tennis scene, right after graduating in 2007 from The University of Georgia, he wasn’t a big draw. That all changed in Washington D.C. the same year.
A couple days before the main draw got underway at Citi Open that summer, which then was called Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Isner was hitting serves on a side court. A couple older crepe myrtle trees bordered the fence, giving it a gentle southern feel. Every few seconds a tennis ball and long spindly arm would rise above the court fence in contrast to the tree’s cranberry-colored blossoms. Then a racquet thwacked the ball. The arm belonged to Isner. He’d gotten a wild-card into the main draw at this Washington D.C. tournament. His ranking was way outside 800, but he’d lead the Georgia Bulldogs to an undefeated season and a N.C.A.A. championships.
Isner was first on for the evening session. His opponent — Tim Henman. When word spread that Isner was a southerner, born and raised in North Carolina and a Bulldog to boot, people connected with him. His brother and college buddies were there, too. Isner didn’t disappoint; he beat Henman, a two-time Wimbledon semifinalist, in three sets. The crowd went crazy.
Isner won every match that week, all of them 3-setters with the third sets going to tiebreakers. The tournament was the talk of D.C., which is something for a little town that spins on politics. In addition to Henman, Isner beat Benjamin Becker, Wayne Odesnik, and Tommy Haas all of whom are now retired. Isner also defeated Gael Monfils in the semifinal, a match that many remember to this day as one of the best ever to be played on that center court.
Championship Sunday was an all-American affair that year. Andy Roddick, in his third final, was top seed and heavily favored. He was 23-3 at Citi Open, in 2007, and won the title in 2005. The day was toasty with heavy humidity. The match didn’t go to a third-set tiebreak and Isner didn’t win the title. But he started a stir that followed him to the U.S. Open, where he took a set off Roger Federer before falling in four to the Swiss star in the third round.
Isner was 22 then, thin as a rail and gangly. Roddick nicknamed him Gramps. It fit. In New York Isner rang up his Georgia tennis coach Dan Magill to thank him for a congratulatory message he’d left after his first-round Open win.
“That’s the way he is,” Magill said, sounding just like a coach. “He’s just as fine a boy as I’ve ever known.”
Isner would reach the top 40 in two years and No. 9, his highest ranking to date, in 2012. His team efforts in Davis Cup make him a standout in international competition, as well. He’s played for the United States from 2010-2018, 15 ties. Ironically enough, he teamed up to bring the Davis Cup home in 2007, the year he turned pro.
Fast forward to today. John will turn 33 later this month. Nonetheless his big serve is still feared. No one wants to see his name in their section of any draw. He’s won 12 career titles, is currently ranked No. 17 and probably will move into the top ten next week because of his results at this Miami Open. Yesterday he advanced to his 11th semifinal at this level tournament. His serve was instrumental, once again, in his win over Hyeon Chung 6-1, 6-4. Isner’s scorelines are normally a run of tiebreak sets. Not at this tournament, though. He’s played two sets that’ve gone to tiebreaks, yet all his matches have been straight set wins except one. Isner is playing freely and with confidence.
“Obviously I was taking care of my serve, but I didn’t feel like today I needed to really red-line things out there and try to end the point so short,” Isner told the ATP. “I felt like I could be patient from the baseline, because I was very happy with how I was playing and how I was moving.”
Isner and Jack Sock won the men’s doubles championship in Indian Wells last week. It was Isner’s third doubles crown at a Masters 1000. But the one thing that’s missing from his resume is a singles champion at this level.
“It comes down for me to keep doing what I’m doing and just keep that feeling that I’m having on court,” Isner said, when asked how he plans to win his semifinal against Del Potro and possibly go one to win the title. “Just take care of my serve, hit my shots and just be calm out there and relaxed. You can’t play when you’re tense and you can’t release your shots. It’s not fun playing like that. The way I played this week is a lot of fun.”
Del Potro leads in their head-to-head 6-3, their last meeting at the Paris Masters last fall when Isner beat Del Potro in a quarterfinal. But Del Potro is the hottest player one tour today, by many accounts. He won his first Masters 1000 singles title last week in Indian Wells, taking down Roger Federer after saving three championship points.
“Del Potro is playing the best tennis in the world right now,” Isner said, Asap Sports reported. “I don’t think that can be argued. He won Acapulco and he won Indian Wells, and he’s still going here. Physically he’s probably as fit as he’s ever been. Seems like he’s hitting his backhand with as much bigger as he ever has. He’s got everything else, as well. He’s is a goo space right now, for sure.”