Are Marathons Getting to John Isner? Loss to Ivo Karlovic Might be Worst Match Ever Played

John Isner, Nicolas Mahut and history

Let’s just be direct from the start: The John Isner-Ivo Karlovic match Friday at the U.S. Clay Court Championships, exciting in the build-up of super tall guys with super big serves, was the anti-Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final. Karlovic won 7-6 (7-2) 6-7 (7-2), 7-6 (11-9).

It might have been the worst match ever played.

And it meant another marathon for John Isner. He is tennis’ ultimate marathon man. That’s what he’ll always be known for, his moment of glory coming when he beat Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon. Actually, it wasn’t a moment.

It was three days. I was exhausted just from sitting in the stands for it.

When that Wimbledon match was over, you had to wonder how it would affect him physically for the long run. Who knows how many little tears to tendons and things would come?

But what has become apparent is that the freaky marathon is not going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for Isner. It is something he’ll face over and over again, based on a game that is part world-beater, part fundamental flaw. Isner is a point-counter point rolled up in one.

Maybe the bigger question about the marathon man wasn’t how his shoulder would survive, but how his head would.

I mean, is Isner willing to let every single match go to a marathon? Or at some point, might he just give up?

Soon, as we get closer to Wimbledon 2011, everyone will start asking Isner about his most-famous marathon. But he now has lost two marathons in the past month to marginal players. Mahut also is a journeyman.

That Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final in 2008 has been labeled the greatest match ever played. The talent was high, of course. But what makes tennis interesting, including that match, is the contrasts and variety. Nadal and Federer are nearly opposites, all the way down to one being lefty, one righty.

Isner-Karlovic? Two tall guys who can hit a huge serve, decent forehand, no backhand, below-average footspeed and absolutely no return of serve.

Imagine: big serve, no return. If a return ever did come back, the rally would last until one player made the other one run for a backhand.

Karlovic could not hit the court at all on his backhand, not even with the slice he usually uses as a Band-Aid.

Zero variety. Zero layers of texture.

Just. Water. Torture.

I had predicted that Isner would win 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 (70-68). Sure, the ridiculous tiebreaker score was meant to be a reminder of the Mahut match, but also a serious statement about what type of player Isner is.

“Now I know what it’s like to play me,’’ Karlovic said. “It’s really not easy. I was trying to stay confident even if he was acing me left and right. I tried to stay calm and, in the end, I don’t know what to say, I was a little luckier.’’

Ivo Karlovic

Karlovic and Isner are almost the same player. That’s what made the match so horrible. Without a final-set tiebreaker, they might still be playing.

Meanwhile, a month ago in Davis Cup, Isner lost to journeyman Paul Capdeville 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

The beauty of Isner in the famous Mahut match was that he just kept coming after Mahut, and never buckled mentally. You hold your serve 70-75 times in a row, and then fail to break that many in a row, and you’d think it would start to break you down.

But in Davis Cup, I thought Isner did buckle in the end against Capdeville, missing an easy overhead, losing his serve. Against Karlovic? That’s not easy to figure out.

With so many free points going both ways equally, it took only a handful of points to decide the match. In the final tiebreaker, Isner hit a ball into Karlovic’s feet. Karlovic started to hit a backhand but froze mid-swing. The ball hit his racquet for what amounted to a half-volley that lobbed over Isner and happened to bounce on the singles line for a winner.

The point is, the magic that allowed Isner to beat Mahut was not there against Capdeville or Karlovic.

Deep down, can Isner stomach the idea of a potential marathon every. . .single. . .match?

If he wants to do more, he’ll have to risk what he has. It would take revamping his backhand entirely, starting over with new grips, a new swing, a new everything. It might not work.

But whatever he’s doing now won’t take him anywhere, either.

He has reached the top 20, is ranked 29 now. He has made more than $2 million.

With that serve, he can keep this up for half a dozen more years. That would seem to be the comfortable path. I’m not sure how comfortable it really is, though.

Isner great marathon isn’t going to be one match, but his entire career. We think that would toughen someone up. But at some point, it might beat them down.

You can’t run a marathon every week.

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

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