July 30, 2010

The John Isner Conundrum

I love John Isner, I really do. I've been a fan of his since that first dramatic run he made to the Washington finals in 2007, beating Tim Henman, Gael Monfils and Tommy Haas in the process. Not a bad showing for only his second Tour event.

He's only gotten better since then, of course. Consistently one of the biggest servers on the circuit, he's been developing his all-court game in the past three years, becoming more comfortable at the net, throwing in some drop shots, and learning how to react when his opponent actually gets a ball back in play. He is certainly fit -- how many others could survive a three-day, eleven-hour slugfest? -- and is able to handle pressure situations -- he's saved sixty-seven percent of the break points he's faced this year, ninth best amongst the pros.

Yet he only has one title to his name.

Not that his trophy in Auckland is something to scoff at -- he beat once red-hot Tommy Robredo and fellow rising star Albert Montanes to do it. But at the same time that Isner can intimidate any player by firing off 140 mile-per-hour bombs, he can be tested by relative unknowns like Gilles Muller and Marco Chiudinelli -- either of whom had ample chances to stop him early in Atlanta and Paris respectively. He's played in three other finals this year, twice losing to Sam Querrey and just last Sunday dropping a tight one to another friend, Mardy Fish, each time after having won the first set. So what's he got to do to get to the next level -- and get that next championship?

Well first he's got to make some headway on his opponents' games. John's won just better than twenty percent of his return points on first serve and only twelve percent of his return games -- that compares to Rafael Nadal who wins better than one in three on return, and it's the lowest percentage of anyone in the top fifty. Incidentally, world #51 Ivo Karlovic, who is equally intimidating on his own serve, is just below Isner at ten percent -- I pray John doesn't fall into that realm of players who can serve and serve and serve, but just can't win.

He's also got to rely on more than just his ability to ace. We're not in college anymore, and the guys on the other side of the net are going to eventually get their racquets on the ball. After all, the fact that Isner has saved so many break points also means he's faced that many more. Luckily, though, he has certainly been improving on this front -- one big plus for Isner's game is the amount of time he's spending on the doubles court, and that's certainly helped him think and react more quickly. He cracked the top thirty this year and won his second title in that discipline with Querrey in Memphis. He even made the finals in Rome on a surface on which Americans so traditionally don't excel. And after his mini-marathon in the Atlanta semis, he got right back on court and suffered the narrowest of defeats to the eventual doubles champions with James Blake.

Now it's still relatively early in Isner's career, and I have no doubt he has the time and talent to win a handful or more titles. And the more time he spends on court, the more he seems to be learning about how to beat the big guys. He took this past week off before heading back to Washington, a good decision to get some rest before what's sure to be another hot week -- both in temperature and in action. He's got a bye in the first round, but could next face Thiemo De Bakker, the man who capitalized on John's fatigue in the second round at Wimbledon. It sure will be interesting to see if he can exact revenge.

I'll be cheering him on the whole way!

1 comment:

Dave Power said...

John has great tennis coaching starting before college tennis - he may follow a path similar to the Bryan Brothers.