Like it or Not, John Isner Always Will be Marathon Man

When the once-in-history, never-to-be-repeated, never-ending moment had actually ended last year at Wimbledon, and John Isner had won 70-68 in the fifth set, he said he hoped this wouldn’t define his career.

But he admitted: “Nothing like this. . .it won’t happen again. Not even come close.’’

Let me just say this: It is absolutely going to happen again. In fact, it’s going to happen with Isner. It’ll be 70-68, 50-48, 100-98, whatever. Isner is set up for a whole career of these outrageous marathons.

If he doesn’t make major changes in a hurry, assuming he’s capable, those freakish matches are exactly what he’ll be known for. And not much more.

It almost happened again Friday in Chile, in the Davis Cup against Paul Capdeville, a journeyman. They split the first four sets, with each one decided in a tiebreaker. Four hours gone, and it was 4-all in the fifth set. Fifty-six service holds. No breaks.

Then, Isner lazily dumped an overhead into the net. He was broken. Capdeville held. Just like that, it was over. Isner had lost 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

The U.S. did win, thanks to Andy Roddick. He won both of his singles matches, and the Bryan brothers won in doubles. Isner then came back to beat some guy ranked in the 600s, stretching that match out, too. It was a victory for Jim Courier in his first time as U.S. Davis Cup captain.

The thing that stood out, though, was Isner. He always stands out. At 4½ hours, his match wasn’t even half as long as his Wimbledon victory over Nicolas Mahut.

But when Andy Roddick clears out of the way in a couple years, American tennis will be turning to Isner. He has leveled off, while others are starting to blow past him with more athleticism and well-rounded games. Isner has a losing record this year, and is down to No. 33 in the world. He’s in danger of being unseeded at the majors, meaning tougher draws.

The Isner-Mahut match was not a fluke, afterall. It was the perfect description of Isner: Great serve. No return. Excellent forehand, below-average backhand. Courageous and stubborn.

He’s going to be beloved for his relentlessness. But the nuts and bolts truth about Isner’s match with Mahut is that it wasn’t played that well. That day, and always, Isner has a great serve, almost unreturnable. And he has a terrible return of serve, which I’ll also describe as unreturnable.

See how his matches can go on forever? Ivo Karlovic hit a record 156 mph serve in Davis Cup this weekend. Are you sure that if Isner played Karlovic at Wimbledon, anyone would ever return a serve? Are you sure it wouldn’t be 70-68 in the fifth?

On Friday, Isner kept pushing back the return, even though Capdeville is an average player with an average serve. At 6-foot-10, Isner would never get aggressive. He seemed comfortable just sitting back and rallying on the slow red clay against someone who grew up on the stuff.

But it’s worse than that. Isner doesn’t even seem to be holding a backhand grip on his backhand return. It’s almost a forehand grip, and when the serve goes to his backhand, he’s forced to turn his wrists over and flip them. He takes away all the power he could generate from his size.

I just hope he didn’t play that terrible game at 4-all in the fifth set because he couldn’t stand the thought of another Mahut-like marathon, even if it was done subconsciously.

This time last year, Isner and Sam Querrey were taking steps toward the game’s elite. They represented the next generation for U.S. tennis, and the feeling was that maybe one of them could take the next step. If not, they could at least keep the seat warm until the next American star arrived.

Now, Isner is struggling and Querrey doesn’t show enough interest. He’s ranked No. 24, but has won just three matches all year. Earlier this year on match point against Querrey, his opponent served and was called for a let. Querrey said he heard the let, too. But then he conceded the point, and the match, anyway. Who knows why.

Isner has no problem with desire or passion, despite his image. I talked to him last year at the French Open after he had blown an opportunity to close off a match before dark. As he walked off, he was fuming at himself.

The passion is there. The return of serve is not.

Isner seems to be a good guy who is willing to work hard. But I’m not sure he’s the type to spend hours and hours on court every day, drilling. That’s fine. It can burn people out. But he has such a basic flaw that maybe he needs to stand there, and return serve over and over.

At this point, with tall young guys coming up, it’s hard to imagine him as the face of American tennis, standing up to, say, Canadian Milos Raonic.

“I think I have what it takes to do some really big things in this game,’’ Isner said after the Mahut match. “I have probably a good seven, eight years left to try to make a good run at (the majors). So hopefully this won’t be the thing that I’m most remembered about.’’

At least it was a good memory.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “Like it or Not, John Isner Always Will be Marathon Man

  • Rich

    I think you hit it towards the end … He’s gonna have to work harder and develop a consistent backhand (I saw him at the Winnetka Challenger here in Chicago a couple years back and he had one then) and *especially* a service return, even if it’s just a low, hard chip-slice that he can get deep.

    Good article; thanks!

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