Red, White and Isner

Monday, April 09, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

John Isner has played 10 Davis Cup World Group matches, but he has yet to play a tie on home soil, or on a surface other than red clay. Given how well he's performed under those circumstances—Isner is 7-3, combined singles and doubles, and now that he's got the lay of the Davis Cup land he has a five-match winning streak going—they ought to give him a parade when he finally gets to play a tie at home, on his surface of choice, hard courts.

That is, unless Isner has decided that maybe red clay suits him better. 

This is an extremely pleasant emerging story for the down-at-the-heels American tennis establishment. It's also an unexpected one.

Isner doesn't really look the part of what you might conjure up if you were assigned the task of creating a "Davis Cup hero." There's a much celebrated intensity about the competition, and that might steer you toward more passionate, aggressive, and tightly-wound characters, the Boris Beckers and John McEnroes of this world.

Isner, by contast, is one of the most mellow and laconic of players on the ATP tour. There are reasons, other than the fact that he stands 6'9", that he doesn't leap around, punching the air and screaming, "Come awwwwwwnnnnnnn!" It's hard to imagine him getting as caught up in the moment to the extent that Janko Tipsarevic did this weekend, when he almost came to blows with Radek Stepanek. But Isner has demonstrated that the moments he gets caught up in are the crucial ones in a match, to the benefit of the nation he represents.

Some Davis Cup stars wear their patriotism on their sleeves, in the manner of Novak Djokovic (although that sleeve seems too short these days to accommodate the competition) or the paragon of Davis Cup in the traditional tennis nations, Lleyton Hewitt. And who can forget Andre Agassi insisting that at the end of a tie, the USTA play Lee Greenwood's popular country song, "God Bless the USA"?

What patriotic feelings Isner has he keeps mostly to himself, although his willingness to play Davis Cup in the first place, and the degree of dedication he brings to his commitment, suggests that there's plenty of water in that well. Isner was sufficiently loyal to play collegiate tennis for four years at the University of Georgia (the pretty coeds and weekend keg parties notwithstanding); he's always been happily imbued with team spirit, and seems to enjoy what you might call leadership among his peers.

When it comes right down to it, giving your all for a flag with a bulldog—or mustang, jayhawk, or bruin—sewn on it is but one small step, at least psychologically, from playing for and under the most important banner of all.

And who knows, perhaps a laid-back temperament is a great asset in the cauldron of Davis Cup; it's a pretty good antidote to pressure, and keeping your head is always preferable to having it blow up under stressful circumstances. Isner, now No. 10 in the world rankings, has demonstrated that, in his case at least, an easygoing attitude can be a weapon, or a useful accessory to weapons like his great big serve and atomic forehand. And while that's not especially sexy as Davis Cup personalities go, others have used an imperturbable, insouciant temperament to good effect in the competition—Stefan Edberg and his stablemate Mats Wilander come to mind.

So let's take a look at Isner's start in Davis Cup, and see how his record compares to that of other notable Davis Cup icons. Isner is 5-3 in singles, 2-0 in doubles. More to the point, given the learning curve that exists in this unique competition, Isner is 5-0 in recent matches, and three of those wins were of the highest quality, starting with what will surely be a lifetime memory: Beating all-time Grand Slam singles champion and world No. 3 Roger Federer in the Swiss town of Fribourg on red clay. Isner's wins over Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 6) Gilles Simon (No. 13) this last weekend were almost as impressive, given that the tie was on French soil—red-clay soil, to be precise.

Isner warmed up for these feats with a dead-rubber win in Chile over Guillermo Rivera-Aranguiz (in the first round of World Group play in 2011), but note two things: Isner actually played that fifth rubber, even though the tie was already decided in favor of the USA, and he didn't throw the towel in after he lost the second set. The 26-year-old from North Carolina dropped a tiebeaker, but wrestled the match away from his opponent, 7-5 in the third.

Incidentally, Isner had lost the second rubber of that tie to Paul Capdeville in an epic five-set match. The first four sets all went to tiebreakers, but Capdeville was able to work out that one break advantage to take it, 6-4 in the fifth. That tie against Chile was the last tie Isner played before the first round of World Group play this year, and both the dispiriting loss—and dead-rubber triumph—seem to have had a transformational effect on Isner. 

While we're at it, we might as well cite Isner's five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in Serbia in just his second Davis Cup singles appearance (in his debut, he lost the opening match of that 2010 first-round tie to Viktor Troicki, but also recorded his first Davis Cup win there, in the doubles partnered with Bob Bryan). Isner handled himself very well that week in Belgrade, and it now seems to have been a preview of things to come.

To see all of Isner's Davis Cup results, go here.

So let's see how Isner stacks up with a few celebrated Davis Cup heroes from the U.S.:

Arthur Ashe (28-6, 27-5 in singles): Ashe was a great Davis Cup competitor who went 9-1 in his first 10 matches, but they were all before the World Group format was adopted, so many of his wins were over second-rate players in the Americas zone. One notable exception was the Mexican powerhouse team of Rafael Osuna and Tony Palafox, and Ashe beat both of them handily in the fourth and fifth matches of his career. And who can ever forget that win over Lancelot Lumsden, of Jamaica? 

John McEnroe (59-10, 41-8 in singles): Fittingly, the Mac daddy of U.S. Davis Cup went a perfect 10-0 to start that brilliant career. And only two of those—including the first one of all—were doubles wins. His seventh and eighth wins were over the brilliant Argentinian tandem of Guillermo Vilas and Jose Luis Clerc; his next two were over tough Aussies John Alexander and Mark Edmondson, on grass. McEnroe ran his winning streak to 14-0 before Vilas got revenge and halted the run.

Pete Sampras (19-9, 15-8 in singles): A somewhat reluctant Davis Cup warrior, Sampras was 6-4 in his first 10 matches, and two of those wins were in doubles. After a 0-2 start to his career (l. to Guy Forget and Henri LeConte, in France), Sampras won over two quality opponents, Alberto Mancini and Martin Jaiti. He beat Petr Korda but lost to Richard Krajicek in other noteworthy singles results during that early period. 

Andre Agassi (30-6, all singles): Agassi blazed out to a 7-3 start, and had wins over the two-man French team that would demolish Sampras in a later tie, LeConte and Forget. Two of his three losses were to high quality players, Thomas Muster of Austria and Germany's Boris Becker. The third loss was the worst of his early career: Carl Uwe-Steeb bested him in the fourth rubber of what would be a 3-2 win for Germany.

Jim Courier (17-10, 16-10 in singles): A great Davis Cup player who is now the team captain of the U.S., Courier was 5-5 in his first 10 matches—all singles. But the two best players he encountered over that period, Germany's Michael Stich and Switzerland's Marc Rosset, both handed him losses. His best win was a Cup-clincing victory over Jakob Hlasek of Switzerland in the fourth rubber of the same tie.

Andy Roddick (still active, 33-12, all singles): Roddick went 8-2 in his first 10 matches, with both losses occurring in the same tie, against France in the 2002 World Group semfinal played at Roland Garros and won by the home side. Roddick lost to Sebastian Grosjean and Arnaud Clement. His biggest wins in that early period were relatively modest ones over Tommy Robredo, on grass, and Karol Beck, on indoor hard in Slovakia.

Isner's record suggests that he blends in well with this company—as well as any 6'9" guy can blend in anywhere. And about that parade? It's not likely to happen too soon, as the U.S. will travel to Spain to play the next tie, the World Group semifinal, a week after the U.S. Open.

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