August 11, 2009

The Next Big Thing

It's easy to get blindsided in life -- when you're so focused on a few big events, big names, big personalities, a couple of smaller victories are easy to miss. And while everyone is focused this week on the return of players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I feel there's another player waiting in the wings, just primed to make his big statement.

I've talked a lot about John Isner in recent weeks -- actually, I've been following his success closely over the last two years since he impressed every tennis fan at the 2007 Legg Mason Tennis Classic. While his performance at this year's tournament was just as inspiring -- it helped him climb to a career-high #55 ranking -- this week he crosses international borders for the first time since January, earning what he said on Saturday was a surprise entry to the Rogers Cup:

"I just found out this morning I was in the draw -- I was planning to go back home to Florida after this. My coach didn't bring his passport -- he has to fly to Florida and then fly to Montreal. Luckily for me I always keep my passport in my bookbag."

And in his first Masters event of the year, Isner was in good form. Playing countryman and fellow college star Jesse Levine, he won almost eighty percent of his second serves, fired off twice as many aces as his opponent and defended all three break opportunities. He's got a tough second round match against Mikhail Youzhny ahead of him, but I'm confident he has the goods to pull it off.

What's more interesting to me is the potential Isner still has to become one of the greats. At twenty-four John isn't exactly a youngster on Tour, but he came to the scene much later than a lot of guys ranked in the top ten, including twenty-two year olds Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic and D.C. winner Juan Martin Del Potro, who'll be twenty-one next month.

Instead of turning pro early, Isner enjoyed a successful college career at the University of Georgia, where he won the NCAA doubles title as a sophmore (he was runner-up the year before). He was the #1 ranked singles player in the NCAA for most of his senior year, leading his team to the 2007 championship and only losing one match in his final two years at school -- incidentally to the University of Florida's Levine.

As a pro he hasn't yet won any trophies -- his second place finish in D.C. is so far his best performance -- but he's learning the ropes pretty quickly. He's won a handful of challenger and futures titles and had beaten players like Gael Monfils, Tommy Haas, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in major tournaments. Plus he's got that one weapon few opponents want to face -- a huge serve. In twenty-eight matches he's shot 382 aces, winning more than three-quarters of his first serve points, and has saved more break points than anyone else this year.

And now he's playing smarter and with more confidence. After his loss to Andy Roddick in the Legg Mason semis, Isner was asked to compare his performance to his debut at the tournament.

"I feel like I'm a better player now, that's for sure. I was just kind of riding a wave of momentum in '07, and now I feel like I truly belong at this level. Maybe in '07 I didn't really think I could win that match -- I thought all along I could win today."

So maybe John took a bit of a detour on his way to the big leagues, a route that very few professional athletes take, but you can't fault him for that. And maybe in the end it will work to his advantage. If his recent performances are any indication, he's going to have a lot of success in the next few years and, I think, could get himself into the top tier before very long.

I will certainly be cheering for him all the way!

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

Thanks to @JustinKeyes who points out that Isner did lose the 2007 NCAA singles championship to Somdev Devvarman of UVA -- that's who he ceded his #1 ranking to at the end of that school year. Somdev also won the title in '08, his third straight appearance in the singles final. UVA retired his jersey this year, pretty impressive for a college player.

Incidentally Devvarman is also another player doing well this hardcourt season. He beat Marin Cilic in DC before losing to Ivo Karlovic and previously triumphed over fellow up-and-comer Leonardo Mayer in Croatia. He's not playing in Montreal this week, but I'm hoping to see him back in action later this summer!