Few assignments in tennis are as daunting as the one John Isner and his United States Davis Cup team faced earlier this year: They drew the Roger Federer-led Swiss on the road. As the Americans knew, this translated to “on clay,” regardless of the local tongue. Held indoors at a Fribourg facility used primarily for expos and concerts, the venue’s red dirt was laid down just days before the tie.
“The court, for the first two days of practice was terrible—bouncing everywhere; could not rally,” Isner says. “But I kept telling myself that, if anything, it was going to play to my advantage, because if Roger has the ball in his strike zone with a perfect bounce every time, he’s going to do whatever he wants. I took the court believing that I was going to win the match.”
Isner’s confidence prior to and during the contest played a large role in the outcome, a convincing four-set win. It was a result that froze the tennis world on one of its busiest days, the first Friday of Davis Cup. By the end of the match, Federer faced forehands clocked at the speed of most players’ fastest serves. This, after Isner struggled to handle Federer’s command at the onset.
“Once John found his forcefulness,” says U.S. Davis Cup Captain Jim Courier, “I felt comfortable that he was going to have a chance.”
The turnaround began in the second set, which Isner won 6-3, and continued into the third, which he took in a tiebreaker after saving five break points. Once he weathered Federer’s final stand in the fourth set—the fifth game, which Isner trailed 0-40 on serve—the unthinkable was becoming a reality.
“That gave me momentum,” Isner says, “and from that point, I probably played the three best games I’ve ever played.”
It wasn’t bad bounces that led to Isner’s turnaround, but good decisions and even better hitting. More surprisingly—and more impressively for a player who’s known for his serving prowess—Isner’s attack wasn’t limited to his service games. He broke Federer in two of the final three games, securing the victory with three consecutive return winners: one with the forehand, two with the backhand. John Isner’s career-altering moment had taken place on what most pundits would consider to be his worst playing surface, and against whom most people would consider to be tennis’ best-ever player.
“That’s what it takes to beat Roger, you have to have weapons,” Isner said with conviction. “And they have to be on.”
Whatever weapons the Greensboro, NC, native and University of Georgia alumnus had in February 2009, they certainly were not “on”; Isner, ranked No. 144 and without a coach, lost in the qualifying rounds of Delray Beach. The defeat left him with just three main-draw match wins in the year’s first two months. A wild card into the upcoming 96-player Indian Wells tournament awaiting, Isner returned to Saddlebrook, his training home in Tampa, FL.
“I knew I had about two weeks to practice and get ready for [Indian Wells],” Isner says. “I worked with C.B. at Saddlebrook. Arguably the best practices we’ve ever had.”
“C.B.” is 48-year-old Craig Boynton, a Tampa native and former ATP pro who grew up on the Saddlebrook courts training with such stars as Courier and Jennifer Capriati. He worked as Courier’s personal coach for two years and in 2007 joined Saddlebrook Tennis Academy, where he now serves as Academy Director in addition to being Isner’s coach.
“Our relationship grew out of friendship because I wanted the best for him,” Boynton says. “At the time, we were going to interview a number of coaches to find what the best fit for him was. And then I became available.”
The results were immediate and impressive: Isner beat Gael Monfils and Marat Safin in Indian Wells that March, and he took sixth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro to two tiebreakers in the round of 16. “From that point on, we decided to work together,” Isner says.
The next month, Isner won a Challenger tournament in Tallahassee. In September, he unseated top American Andy Roddick at the 2009 U.S. Open in a five-set thriller. That was but a warm-up session for what was to come, the longest match in tennis history, Isner’s epic 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 win over Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010.
While the serve is the most obvious weapon in Isner’s game, it’s no longer the only one. In one of his best matches since 70-68, Isner hit only 13 aces in five sets and won just 67 percent of his first-serve points in nearly becoming the second player ever to beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. The then-five-and-soon-to-be-six-time French Open champion lost two of the first three sets in tiebreakers before winning the fifth to escape the tournament’s 2011 opening round.
“That match felt like the beginning of John’s year, last year,” Courier says. “He came to life in that match. He was gunning and trying to take the play from Rafa, which is your only shot against him on that surface.”
Courier and Boynton offer similar assessments of how Isner can continue to improve. Boynton suggests looking beyond the tiebreakers in which Isner so often finds himself [Isner edged Gilles Simon, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at last year’s U.S. Open] and instead examine the point that is inevitably contested in close sets—the one that, in Boynton’s words, is “the difference between a tiebreaker and a routine set.”
“How was that point played, what happened in that point?” Boynton continues. “Did John do the right things, and it didn’t pan out? Or did John not do the right things—and so, you’re in a tiebreaker now. That’s where the improvement piece comes in.”
In Courier’s words, Isner needs to avoid “bad choices,” which tend to happen on significant points. In preparation for the aforementioned Davis Cup tie against Switzerland, Courier counted the number of bad choices Isner made during practice sets. He started off making two or three, but reduced the number to one or none as the week progressed. The goal was to have the mind of the physical specimen perfectly calibrated by match day.
“Knowing this from my own experience,” Courier says, “if you can simplify things for players and give them clear choices to make out there, and illustrate what the right ones are to them, it takes a variable out of play. And the game becomes a lot easier.”
It is in the pressure-filled vacuum of match play that Isner is most dangerous. In only the second tournament of his pro career, Isner remarkably won five final-set tiebreakers to reach the 2007 Washington, D.C. final. It was a foreshadowing event—Isner has carved a niche as Mr. Maximum Sets, with 70-68 his magnum opus. But with that comes maximum effort, and that’s hurt him as much as it’s helped him win dramatic matches.
“He’s got to play shorter matches at Slams,” Boynton says before recalling Isner’s experience at the 2012 Australian Open. “Not to take anything away from Felo [Feliciano Lopez], but John had nothing left in the fifth set because [the prior, second-round match with David] Nalbandian was 10-8 [in the fifth].”
Isner remains a work in progress on that front, losing five-setters at this year's Wimbledon and French Open. In Paris, he played the second-longest match in Roland Garros history before falling to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the second round, 7-6 (2), 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 16-18.
But Isner has shown signs of improvement during this breakthrough season. After winning eight of his first nine sets—none in tiebreakers—at Indian Wells earlier this year, Isner found himself in a Masters semifinal against the behemoth of the baseline, Novak Djokovic. “If the point goes more than five or six balls,” Courier said before the match, “John probably has a better chance of catching the ball and going to the next point than winning a long rally with Novak.”
So when Isner, trying to prevent Djokovic from serving out the first set, won a 14-shot rally on a pivotal 30-all point, the desert felt like Fribourg. Again, Isner won a tiebreaker to grab the lead against a prohibitive favorite; again, he didn’t flinch at the finish. The underdog’s nerve was on par with his serve in the final-set tiebreaker, even though a match point had come and gone. Once three match points had come and gone, Isner unsheathed his finest weapon: His 20th ace of the afternoon sealed a 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5) win over the world No. 1 and secured Isner a spot in the following week’s ATP Top 10. Clenching and pumping his fists like so many of the fans in attendance, Boynton was the happiest man in the 16,100-seat stadium, wearing a Saddlebrook cap, a blue long-sleeved shirt, and a smile wider than the jubilant Isner’s outstretched arms.
“He’s a handful already,” Courier says of Isner, “and it’s my hope that he’ll continue to do the work and become even more a nightmare for people out there.”
Of all the things you can say about Isner—that a four-year college player made it on the pro tour; that someone who is 6-foot-9 can win baseline rallies with Djokovic; that he regularly hits serves over 140 m.p.h.; that he won a 183-game tennis match—the most remarkable may be that he hasn’t let the Mahut epic at Wimbledon define his career. Since then, Isner has ascended into the ATP Top 10 and posted his best results at Grand Slam and Masters tournaments. He has also become a Davis Cup linchpin by following up the win over Federer with a victory against France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets in April, clinching an away tie for the second time this year.
At the relatively advanced age of 27, Isner is more of a threat than ever. He’ll be a threat this September to become the first American since Andy Roddick in 2003 to win a U.S. Open men’s singles title, and a threat later that month to lead the U.S. Davis Cup team to a semifinal upset win over Spain. More immediately, he’s a threat to become the first American male to win Olympic gold since Andre Agassi in 1996.
“I don’t think it will ever die,” Isner says about the Mahut match. “It’s always going to stick with me, and that’s fine. But I think there’s some stuff I can do on the tennis court that will overshadow it. It’s gonna take something really big.”
Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of TENNIS.