Out of His Own Way?
When we left Long John Isner at Wimbledon, he was not merely a beaten man—the victim of a first-round upset inflicted by Alejandro Falla—but a confused one. He tried to explain in a doleful press conference that might just as easily have been conducted on a psychiatrist's leather couch as in Wimbledon's close and airless Interview Room No. 2:
"It's just now I get out there sometimes, and lately it's happening quite a lot, and I get out there in the match and I'm just so clouded. I just can't seem—I just can't seem to figure things out. I'm my own worst enemy out there. It's all mental for me, and it's pretty poor on my part. . . I just—I don't know. I just get out there, and it's happened my last match at the French. Happened here again. I just can't get out of my own way. Just don't do the right things during the course of the match, what I need to do. I'm just getting too down on myself. There has certainly been better times than right now."
Left untabulated in that frank confession was the critical price Isner has to pay for playing "clouded," failing to get out of his own way, and allowing even a clay-court expert like Falla to win extremely close final sets—just the kind of do-or-die situations in which a man with a borderline unbreakable serve, like Isner, holds the trump card. Isner's greatest weapon after that serve—or should we say that height of 6-foot-9?—is the fear factor he brings to matches against even the very best players. They understand that the big serve allows Isner at his best to take his hold games almost for granted, freeing him up to focus on cobbling together a decisive break when the opportunity presents itself. And it can materialize out of the blue, thanks to a lucky shot here, a winner there, and a let-cord at 15-all.
When Isner is up to par, It's like he's playing with house money, while the other guy is forced to contemplate mortgaging his home to stay in the game. Desperation doesn't help any more in tennis than it does in poker, and when Isner is as or more stressed than his opponent, the roles easily are reversed. Isner knows he has more weaknesses to hide than many of the men he can beat—when he's playing the right way.
Isner's record at Wimbledon is a definitive comment on his nature as a player. He's already played in one of the most historic of all tennis matches. He's got the single greatest weapon on grass, the monster serve. Despite all those long limbs his game is economical and his mentality (generally) cool. But Isner is 27, and he's beaten exactly one man at Wimbledon, Nicolas Mahut (whom Isner tagged twice). Clearly, Isner is not your typical Wimbledon-ready big man; not physically, even though he totes that howitzer of a right arm, and not mentally. It may be that, like so many others, he more or less assumed—with all due modesty, for he's a pretty self-effacing guy—that he'd do well at Wimbledon. It may be that he has trouble dealing with mounting pressure implied therein, which would constitute a pretty deadly one-two punch at the will and spirit.
Isner's record on clay suggests there might be some merit to this idea. He was never expected to do well on clay, ergo, he has come up big in some clay-court events, especially this spring. But once he made that breakthrough into the Top 10 earlier this year (he's since slipped to No. 11) he's shown signs of slipping—of surrendering that powerful psychological advantage he has always held as it comes to crunch time in any match. His life will become a lot more difficult if he allows other guys to think he might fold—mentally or even tactically—just as easily as they might be broken.
In the third round of this year's Australian Open, Isner faded badly in the fifth set and yielded to Feliciano Lopez, 1-6. In the final of Houston, he gave up a break to Juan Monaco and lost 6-3 in the third set. At the Rome Masters, Andreas Seppi kept the third set of their second-round match from going to tiebreaker and won it, 7-5. And at Roland Garros, Mr. 70-68 lost to Paul Henri-Mathieu (who was ranked No. 261 at the time), 18-16 in the decider. That last one was a particularly hurtful blow because it's precisely the kind of match Isner ought to, and needs to, win.
One of the problems, I think, is that Isner is a mellow character, not given to punching his own thigh and screaming, "Come on" any time he arrives at an important point. If his metronomic, lethal serving ritual (for that's just what it is) mesmerizes opponents, it may be that lately it mesmerizes Isner as well. Tennis is a game that relies inordinately on patterns, and the pattern Isner imposes on a match can easily degenerate from "I can break but you can't" into "You can't break but I can't either." It becomes a stalemate that ultimately gets resolved only because it must.
But Isner can't just wait for a break to happen, no matter how easily he holds; he needs to wipe the cobwebs from his eyes in the late stages of any important set and fully exploit the fear factor, not just when he's serving but also when he's returning. If you're John Isner, it's awfully easy to rationalize a blown service return at 15-all with the other guy serving, because you know your serve is a cannon and even if you don't get the break here, your opponent isn't going to get one in the next game either.
The good news for Isner, I think, is that his plight can be remedied without any drastic measures or by asking him to get out of his comfort zone, tactically or strategically. As he suggested in his press conference, he just needs to get out from under that cloud and think and act decisively, swiftly. I don't think that comes naturally to Isner, a true Southerner in his absolute indifference to haste. His insouciant nature helped propel him onto the ATP tour and into the Top 20, so it's not exactly a liability. It just needs to be disciplined and channelled more effectively.
Thankfully for Isner and his fans, it turned out that those aforementioned "better times" were not just in the past, but in the immediate future as well. The imposing North Carolina native righted his course just a few weeks after that early loss at Wimbledon when he won the title last Sunday at Newport over the ever-game veteran Lleyton Hewitt.
Isner won Newport largely with his serve, holding 57 of his 58 service games. It was a thoroughly Isnerish victory; he drove the first set to a tiebreaker, which he locked up when he jumped to a 4-0 lead. After that, the inevitable pressure got to Hewitt in the third game of the second set. He was broken, and even this superb competitor knew his games were numbered after that.
Okay, Hewitt is 31 years oold, coming off five different surgeries, with a world ranking of No. 233. It's not like this was Novak Djokovic out there, or even Janko Tipsarevic. But the overarching value of Isner's win lay in the fact he arrived in Newport as the defending champ. Successfully defending a title may be the most underrated accomplishment in tennis, simply because whether it's a Grand Slam or a mere ATP 250 like Newport, the target on your back is a big one. The pressure is real, and it's inescapable. And then there's this little matter of the ranking points you're defending.
“It’s never easy coming to a tournament where in a previous year you won it," Isner said after his triumph. "There’s a lot of pressure on you. You don’t do well, your ranking’s going to drop. . .I did well, I defended those points and I kept my ranking where it’s at. More importantly than that, I gained a lot of confidence from this week just as I did last year. I had a great, great summer last year. I hope to have much of the same this year.”
To add to his relief and satisfaction, Isner faced a trial by fire in his very first match. Outright disaster beckoned when he was down break points against Sergei Bubka, no slouch himself in the serve department—especially on grass. But Isner pulled through to stave off that menace, and reacted with typical nonchalance. "That’s how tennis is sometimes," he said. "I kept my head and I was able to persevere.”
The 27-year-old American is playing in Atlanta this week, after which he returns to Wimbledon for the Olympic games. He'll have a rare opportunity to make up for that poor showing in London just a few weeks ago, and the use of the final-set tiebreaker will help more than it will hurt him, simply because the tiebreaker forces you to play as if your life depended on it.
With any luck, the clouds may be parting for Isner at just the right time.
For more on Wimbledon and the menality it takes to win there, please check out my recently published e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals. It can be downloaded to any electronic reading device as well as your home computer.