John Isner: The Fire Within
US OPEN 2012
by Robert Davis
America’s No. 1 player and ATP World Tour Top 10 member brings more to the Tour than just a big game. John Isner has endeared himself to his opponents and fans alike with a mix of sportsmanship and compassion for others.
John Isner is slightly late for our interview. Thunder showers at the Winston-Salem Open messed with his practice schedule. Still, he apologises three times for being late. Twice upon entering the room, and the third time twenty-seven minutes later as he is leaving. This should tell you all you need to know about America’s new No. 1 player and ATP World Tour Top 10 club member.
John’s workday is nearly over. As soon as we wrap up the interview he will jump into his car and hit Interstate 40 East for the short drive home to nearby Greensboro, North Carolina, where his family and friends are waiting on him for their annual summer cookout.
"John is a genuine nice guy who happens to be a good tennis player," says coach Craig Boynton. "He is more concerned with other people’s feelings than his own. If you don’t like John then you don’t like people. You want John Isner for your next door neighbour."
One could forgive Coach Boynton for pumping a little sunshine at his 27-year-old charge. Things are looking good for Isner and team. But in fact everyone you talk to about John, from his junior coach Tom Herb to the locker room attendants who John signs autographs for, John Isner is a polite and caring young man
Flip through the family photograph album and you will find young John, a bit lanky but with a wide smile surrounded by his older brothers, Nathan and Jordan. In some they are playing basketball, others baseball, and in a few tennis. There are even photos of John proudly holding up a small-mouth bass.
John Isner is late again. Only this time he is 10 years old and he is late for dinner. His house sits in a cul-de-sac and he yells out to his mom and begs for five more minutes. He is playing home run derby with Nathan and Jordan and if he can just belt a few more tennis balls between the street light posts (left and right field he tells me) and clear the neighbour’s house, he will win.
"Growing up with two older brothers, I was forced to compete all the time," says Isner. "I took a lot of big brother beat downs over the years. I wanted to out-do them in everything. I guess I got my competitiveness from growing up with them."
John also got a lot of support. Whether it was middle brother Jordan going to the back of the bus taking care of a bully who was picking on John, or heckling opponents during John’s college career, Jordan has been John’s mother hen figure.
"You know there was never any jealousy between us brothers," admits Jordan Isner. "Now don’t get me wrong: We did not want to lose to him, but we always wanted the best for him. And nobody better mess with him or they would have to deal with me and Nathan."
"His brothers have always been his biggest fans, even till this day," recalls Karen Isner, John’s mother. "I remember when John was little he was always making a competition out of everything. With his first coach, Oscar, from Bolivia, he would play these silly little games like table football with a packet of sugar. And once they made a game by guessing which squirrels would jump out of a branch first. With John it has always been about the competition."
When you are 6’ 9” and weigh 245 pounds, a world-class tennis player is not the first image to come to mind. Especially, when you are often tagged with the ‘Gentle Giant’ label. That said, watch John Isner on a tennis court and you might conclude that he is better suited for the ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick’ category.
"All my friends kid me that it is my fault that he is not in the NBA," laughs Karen. "John played all sports growing up."
"My mom was the perfect tennis parent," says Isner. "She was not too demanding, but always supportive. She encouraged me to practise tennis and basketball but she never forced me into any sport."
Maybe it is the All-American smile or southern gentleman manners or the way he constantly goes out of his way to sign autographs and accommodate journalists. Or it could be how he does not beat his chest and thrust his fist in his opponent’s face after a tough point. It appears that John Isner not only loves to play tennis, but he honours the sport as well.
"If you don’t know him you would be surprised at how competitive John is," says Karen. "He is very quiet and not real boastful. He keeps things internal. But the fire burns deep inside."
"You would think that being such a nice guy would be an issue as far as toughening him up on the court," says Boynton. "But that is not the case; he has such a desire to compete in anything that he does. He is a little like Pete Sampras in the way that people who did not know Pete thought that he was a really laid back guy. But when you got close to Pete you could see he just loved to compete and hated to lose. You may not see that in John when he is out on the practice court and signing autographs, but he is always focused on the mission."
When asked if there is something about John Isner that we might not know, Boynton answers, "He loves animals. Absolutely loves animals. He has this quality that is so endearing to people or animals that cannot help themselves. He will stop wherever he is and pet the dog, if he sees a dog on the side of the street he will try to help it. And he is always helping people."
For most of the tennis world, John Isner’s name began flashing big and bright on the radar screen during his epic match at Wimbledon versus Nicolas Mahut. At 11 hours and five minutes it is the longest match of all time. Then a couple of years later at Roland Garros, Isner was battling in another five-set thriller against another Frenchman, Paul-Henri Mathieu, that would rank in the top ten of all time longest matches. The final set lasted 34 games and was the longest in the tournament’s history. In 2012 he has produced heroic Davis Cup performances. Consider, two months after upending Roger Federer in his own backyard to lead the USA to a 5-0 thrashing of Switzerland, Isner flew over to France and spoiled French captain Guy Forget’s farewell party by defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon in the quarter-finals.
"John seems to revel in the pressure moments, rising to the occasion more often than not," says US Davis Cup captain Jim Courier. "John overpowered all three of those great players and they are three of the best movers on tour. So to be able to do that on clay shows how powerful John can be when he is in full flight."
"What you see in these long, long matches is John’s ability to get out of the way of the pain," says Boynton. "The nerves just get out of the way of the feeling."
"The bigger matches, the most important matches, the ability to raise his game," claims Manny Diaz, Isner’s college coach from the University of Georgia. "I am not surprised at all that he won those Davis Cup matches or the match versus Mahut at Wimbledon. That is something that he did on a regular basis here at UGA. Just had that extra gear, that extra ability to come through the biggest moments in the match."
Diaz should know. The stories that are told about John’s time at Georgia have reached legend status. But in the beginning it was the losses and a very near loss that provided the fuel for Isner’s incredible rise to the top.
As a freshman at UGA, John Isner found himself in the deciding match on court in the NCAA quarter-finals of the team event. "I lost that match and let my teammates down," remembers Isner. "That was a very bitter pill. I think that was a turning point early in my career."
In a lesson about overcoming adversity, Diaz says that Isner’s resolve was tested after his sophomore year. The American had won the NCAA doubles title and, believing that he had been awarded a wild card into the US Open doubles draw, Isner flew with his family to New York. It was only when the draw came out that he realised he would not be suiting up for the Open. "John began to work a lot harder and it seemed as if he was out to prove that he would make it no matter what," Diaz says. "The next year, John really made progress." Isner recalls, "I started working a lot harder. Then in my junior year I made it to No. 1 in the college singles ranking."
Then there is the story about how John injured his heel during the NCAA Indoor quarter-finals and could not walk the next day.
"We had never won the Indoors before and John wanted to bring that title home," says Diaz. "John had injured his heel and the next morning he could not walk or put any weight or pressure on his leg. We were obviously distraught. We did not think we could win without him. He went into the training room while the team warmed up, basically came out barely walking and loosened up. I was about to change the lineup when he said to me, ‘There is no way I’m not playing. I will find a way.’ John won that match and we went on to win the Indoor title."
"John is at his best when someone is depending on him," says mom Karen. "Whether it is at UGA or for Davis Cup, John does not want to let his teammates down. John is very much a team player and that he plays an individual sport is ironic."
Of all the stories about Isner, the one that most sticks out in Diaz’s mind is why he came back for his senior season. Individually, he had little to gain. His chances of playing professional tennis were now certain.
"Yes, I could have turned pro after my junior year," says Isner. "But I wanted to win the NCAA team championship and in my senior year it was going to be held in Athens (Georgia). I did not want to miss out on that experience. I loved the team atmosphere in Athens. I wanted to do my absolute best. Plus, I figured that if it was not for Georgia then I would have never been in the position to play pro tennis in the first place."
For all the tough matches that Isner faced during his college career, none could have prepared him for when he got the news that his mom had colon cancer.
"It was terrible," he begins. "My mom and I had always talked everyday no matter where I was at. I could be anywhere and we would always talk. It was nearing fall break and I thought it strange that I did not hear from her one day and I could not get in touch with her and she was not returning my calls or text messages. And then the next morning she called and told me. She had known for a little while but she did not want to disturb my studies and tennis.
"You hear about cancer all the time but till it happens to someone close to you, you don’t really understand it," continues Isner. "It was a tough, tough moment for me. Immediately I got in my car and drove home for about four days just to be with her. Then it was Christmas break and I would go with her to some of the chemo treatments. She almost lost her life. The great doctors at UNC took such good care of her. My mom is tough. Three boys, Jordan and Nathan, we were all troublemakers; seeing how she dealt with the hand she was dealt with was inspiring. My mom is awesome."
"John gets a lot of his strength from his mother," says Boynton. "His mom is an absolute fighter; she is the one who rolls up her sleeves and says ‘Let’s go’."
When Isner began his pro career it was almost too easy. As if he had been granted a FastTrack pass to the ATP World Tour Top 100.
"I got up to the Top 100 pretty fast, six to eight months or so it seemed like," says Isner. "By my junior year in college I knew that I could play tennis for a living, but I never saw myself as making Top 10. I had always thought that if at any point in my career I could make Top 100 then I would be very proud of that. Growing up, that is the milestone. Then you get to Top 100 and it becomes Top 50, then Top 20, then Top 10. Then the next year I stalled and started to drop."
"CB and I have been through a lot throughout three years," says Isner. "He was there for every point of the Mahut match, and for the Mathieu match. He has been in my corner when I played my best and when I played my worst. Once he took me to the hospital in Beijing when I had a stomach virus. If not for CB I don’t think that I would be sitting here right now and Top 10 in the world. I knew he coached Jim (Courier) and Mardy (Fish). So starting out I trusted him completely and respected him. He was the perfect coach for me then and he is the perfect coach for me now."
That is something that is not lost on Courier.
"There is a nice comfort level between Craig, John and me which has certainly helped us with communication," admits Courier. "Craig has helped me and the team a tremendous amount during Davis Cup weeks with phone call consultations as no one knows John better as a tennis player than he does."
"Craig and Jim have helped me so much with improving the technical parts of my game," says Isner.
For the longest time many people considered John Isner was all serve. As if that was all there was to winning a tennis match. Serves are returned on the ATP World Tour and then what?
"There is a lot more to John than serve," says Boynton. "He has worked very hard on improving the liabilities in his game. Now you better get the serve back with interest otherwise he will hit a winner."
"His movement has gotten better but he still has a lot of room for improvement in this area," feels Courier. "He needs some time away from the tour to commit to getting more explosive. When he improves the first step movement he will see a huge impact in his on-court performance. When he is in position he is a force to be reckoned with. John has the ability to be one of the best big match players on tour if he keeps developing."
"You know the ultimate goal is to be No. 1 in the world," says Isner. "But I tried to set goals that I can achieve realistically. My first goal this year was to get in the Top 10 and then finish Top 10. And I have a match-win goal: I wanted to get 40 wins this year. And I believe I can win a Masters 1000 event and a Grand Slam."
John Isner is a young man who knows where he wants to go. But he has never forgotten where he came from, a trait of which his mother is most proud.