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Tennis tall man scales rankings quickly
At 6 feet 9, Tampa's John Isner has blasted his way - 143-mph serve! - from 839th to 144th.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 7, 2007
John Isner doesn't have to ponder whether he'll become the next big thing in American men's tennis. At 6 feet 9, 236 pounds, that issue is already settled.
But as for all those rumblings about whether Isner may be the next big thing, he doesn't take such talk seriously - at least not right now.
"I've heard that come my way a couple of times and I just laugh at it," said the Georgia All-Americanand newcomer to the ATP Tour. "Because three months ago, I never would have thought anything like that. If it happens, it happens. If not, then I won't be the next great American tennis player. It won't be the end of the world."
For now, Isner, 22, is simply enjoying the start of a great ride - fueled by a killer serve clocked at 143 mph and his impressive debut last month at the U.S. Open. He arrived as a wild card and reached the third round before falling in Arthur Ashe Stadium to No. 1 Roger Federer - though he did take one set from the master.
Not bad for a rookie who began his pro career after four years of college ranked No. 839, but he has worked his way to 144th in the world in four months. He just finished a stint in Sweden as a practice partner for the U.S. Davis Cup team thanks to captain Patrick McEnroe.
And fans have begun to notice the once skinny kid from Greensboro, N.C. - America's answer to 6-10, 230-pound Croatian star Ivo Karlovic, owner of one of the most feared serves in tennis and ranked No. 28 in the world. Isner blossomed into an NCAA force in Athens, Ga., and has relocated to Tampa to hone his game at Saddlebrook Resort, home to such standouts as James Blake, Mardy Fish and the Bryan twins - doubles stars Bob and Mike.
In a phone interview last week, Isner - a die-hard Carolina Panthers and Georgia Bulldogs football fan - came across as easy-going and unfazed by his newfound celebrity.
You must have some amazing memories from the U.S. Open.
Definitely, they're memories I'll always hold onto. From my first match, when I was put on Louis Armstrong Stadium, which is the second biggest. I didn't expect that, but they threw me out there for the day session match and before you knew it, the place is completely filled and I'm playing against the No. 26 player in the world (Jarkko Nieminen) and ended up pulling that match out in four sets. My second-round match was at night on that same court for a chance to play Federer. I remember playing really well that match (against Rik De Voest) and not letting myself feel the pressure. I stayed very focused and never thought about Roger at all - until I won the last point of that match.
What was it like having your friends and family there - especially seeing your mom Karen leading the cheers so enthusiastically in the stands?
She gets a bit emotional out there and really gets into it. That was awesome.
What was it like when you finally played Federer?
I remember walking out there on the court. It was like a spaceship, it's so big and something that not many tennis players experience. Seeing that place packed with 23,000 people or so and hearing my name called on the speakers, and hearing the people roar, was amazing. And hearing the roar for Federer was pretty neat, too, knowing I was squaring up against probably the best player of all time.
Did you learn anything from that match?
Anybody can win a set off of anybody once you're at that level. But maintaining that level of play is real tough - especially against Roger. The experience of being out there on a stage like that is invaluable. It helps you learn to handle pressure.
What was the Davis Cup practice partner experience like?
It was great. We went over to Sweden and got to practice with Andy (Roddick) and James (Blake) and the Bryan brothers and just got them ready for their (semifinal) matches against Sweden. Just to watch those guys and see how focused they were during practice and on the court during matches was an excellent experience. I think it's going to make me a better player. I could have been playing a tournament at that time, but I decided to go to work with our Davis Cup team. It really was an honor.
Will you rejoin the team as a practice partner when the Davis Cup final takes place next month?
They haven't made selections yet for practice partners or reserves for the team. But if I'm selected, that would be pretty cool and I'll hop on the first plane out there (Portland, Ore.).
What were some of the key stepping stones for you when you turned pro after college last spring?
I played in a tournament (in Lexington, Ky.) called the Challenger in July - it's equivalent to the Triple A of tennis. I had to get a wild card because I wasn't even ranked high enough to qualify. But I wound up winning it. So I was riding high with confidence and went right from there to Washington, and started my run in D.C. I was granted another wild card and in the first round I squeaked by Tim Henman, a former top-five player in the world. I just found myself really calm and composed the rest of the tournament. I made it to the finals before falling to Andy Roddick, but that still was an amazing feeling. It gave me a lot of momentum and made me realize I can compete with these guys.
What's your immediate goal?
I want to play some more Challenger level events in the States and hopefully get my ranking up high enough (to about 100) that I can get directly into the Australian Open (in January).
How are you handling all the expectations?
I just try to block that out. There are a lot of people thinking I'm going to do great things, and if I don't, people may look at me as a flash in the pan or fluke. But once I get out on the court, I forget about everything else and that's the important thing. As long as I'm practicing hard and working out hard, the results will follow.
Talk about your serve and how it developed.
It obviously helps being really tall and being able to hit down on the ball, where most players don't have that advantage. With me, I just have a real natural service motion. I worked on it a lot in college. That's where my game really improved, working really hard with my coach, Manny Diaz. He got me to where my game is today, working on all aspects of it. I got so much stronger and put a lot of pounds on my skinny frame (6-8, 199 when he arrived), which helped.
You move well for a big guy.
I guess I do move well for a guy my size. There aren't many other tennis players like me. But I can always improve on my movement. I know I won't be as quick as some of those little guys out there, but it's something I can improve on.
Was tennis always your sport?
Growing up I played just about everything. But I narrowed it down to basketball and tennis. I gave up basketball my freshman year in high school just because I couldn't do both of them. Then my junior year in high school I grew like 6 inches, from 6-2 to 6-8. My older brothers (Nathan and Jordan) are 6-3 and 6-4, so I really didn't expect that. Fortunately I didn't have any knee problems, which can happen when you grow so fast.
If you'd have known that was going to happen, would you have chosen basketball instead?
Does being so much taller than other players give you a psychological edge?
I definitely think I gain an edge from that. And if I'm serving well, I'm going to hold my serve, and that puts a lot of pressure on my opponents to hold their serve, and that's usually when I capitalize.
You seem like you're relaxed about your sudden success and not caught up in the pressure.
Definitely. I took a different route to get where I am. I went to college four years, which is something you rarely see. Most of the peers I travel with didn't go to college at all. I think I learned a lot in college and stayed humble. I just don't let a lot of things faze me.