ISNER'S HOME COURT ADVANTAGE
The tennis tours have come to the U.S., and John Isner is surging. That those two events are coinciding is no coincidence: Isner, the 6’10″ American from North Carolina, always has had his best results on home courts.
Isner won his first two matches in Washington, D.C., this week in straight sets to advance to the quarterfinals on Friday, where he beat Marcos Baghdatis in three sets. This run, after winning in Atlanta last week and reaching the semifinal in Newport, R.I., earlier this month, improves Isner’s career record in the U.S. in tour-level matches to 125-59, according to data provided by tennisabstract.com proprietor Jeff Sackmann. His record away from the U.S. is 66-65: striking both because of his far-lower winning percentage away from home and because the vast majority of his wins have come in the U.S., during an era when the vast majority of tournaments are played elsewhere and the balance of power is shifting away from the U.S. every additional day that no American man ranks in the Top 10; Isner is the highest ranked American man, at No. 20.
With one of the weakest returns in the Top 100, Isner has risen in the rankings with his serving prowess and ability to play even better in set-settling tiebreakers. (Tournaments without final-set tiebreakers — all of them outside the U.S. — haven’t treated Isner well.) He does even better in tiebreakers in the U.S. than elsewhere, winning 69% in the U.S. to 60% in other countries. Before Baghdatis won the first set of their match Friday in a tiebreaker, Isner had won his last four tiebreakers. But what really sets apart his U.S. results is his improved ability to avoid tiebreakers by getting a break — often all he needs to win a set — more often. His ratio of return points won to service points lost in the U.S. is 1.06, compared to a career average of 1. And he has won 30.8% of return points in the U.S., compared to 30.1% overall. Those slight differences translate into many more matches won for a man whose serve is broken so rarely: Isner didn’t even face a break point in his wins Thursday and Friday in Washington.
Isner’s preference for home tournaments is also reflected in the dominance of American English on his trophies. Six of his seven career titles and six of his seven runner-up finishes have come in the U.S. All this at a time when just one of the four Grand Slams, three of the nine Masters events a rung below, and one of the 11 500-level events a notch below Masters (this week’s tournament in Washington) are held in the U.S. Though Roland Garros is the last significant tournament in the calendar to be played on clay, many Top 20 players skipped the July North American hard-court season in favor of clay events in Europe, highlighted by two appearances by Roger Federer, in Hamburg and Gstaad, Switzerland.
The stepped-up competition from clay events, and the dwindling competition from fellow Americans, help explain Isner’s success in the U.S. — he’s generally thriving against weaker fields. He was the top seed in Atlanta last week, at No. 22 in the rankings — after the top seed was ranked 11th or better the last three years, according to data provided by Sackmann. The Newport field was significantly weaker than last year’s in just about every measure. Washington’s field is slightly tougher than last year’s but still doesn’t include any top-five players. Just 11 years ago, three of the non-Masters events in the U.S. leading up to the U.S. Open featured top-three players. And just one of Isner’s seven career titles — Winston-Salem last year — came with any Top 10 players in the field.
There are other reasons Isner plays his best tennis in the U.S., including his preference for fast hard courts and his experience playing on them in the heat, from growing up in North Carolina and playing his college tennis at the University of Georgia. And he’s hardly the only recent American to do his best work in the U.S. Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, James Blake and the retired Andy Roddick each had at least as many titles and runner-up finishes in the U.S. as elsewhere — collectively about two-thirds of that quartet’s titles and finals came in the U.S. And the next generation of American men have played a lot of their tour-level tennis in the U.S. in part because that’s where tournaments are most likely to grant Americans wild cards.
None of this diminishes Isner’s accomplishments — he’s beaten some very good players in the U.S., including Roddick when he was ranked fifth in the world at the 2009 U.S. Open; No. 1 Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells last year; and Top 10ers Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych in successive matches in third-set tiebreakers at Winston-Salem last year. But it does mean however successful Isner’s American summer ends up being, it’s no guarantee he’ll extend that success when the tour leaves the U.S.: Isner has won just six of his last 20 matches away from the U.S.