John Isner shows he's more than just a server—he's a gamer, too

by: Steve Tignor | October 10, 2017

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John Isner is currently ranked No. 16, up 10 spots from a year ago. (AP)

Dusan Lajovic couldn’t take it anymore. After shanking a simple backhand wide of the sideline, he raised his racquet up and slammed it to the court. But even that wasn’t enough to properly express how frustrated he was. So he took a ball out of his pocket and slammed that to the court, too.

What had enraged the Serbian? Tennis Channel commentator James Blake summed it up in a sentence that every player and fan could immediately understand.

“Those are the trials and tribulations of playing John Isner,” Blake said.

At this stage, Isner and Lajovic were just where you would expect on most days—in a third-set tiebreaker. The problem for Lajovic was that, an hour or so earlier, he had good reason to believe that he wouldn’t need to go the distance to beat the big American on this day. Lajovic won the first set, and in the second Isner had his injured knee strapped. Hobbling from one point to the next, it looked like he was destined for an early flight home, in time to see his beloved Carolina Panthers play on Thursday night.

But that’s the thing about Isner. He doesn’t quit. He knows he has a not-so-secret weapon—his serve—that can keep him in any match, against any opponent, no matter how badly he might be playing or feeling. On a hot day when Nick Kyrgios walked off the court after losing the first set to Steve Johnson and never came back, and Jack Sock retired at the start of the third against Alexander Dolgopolov, Isner stayed put. He kept hobbling, kept plugging, and kept serving.

Most important, he kept winning the points he needed to win. Down a mini-break at 3-4 in the second-set tiebreaker, Isner hit a forehand return winner. Down 4-5, he hit an ace. At 5-5, he hit another unreturnable serve. Finally, at 6-5, Isner really must have galled Lajovic when he won a baseline rally for the set.

Isner was just as clutch in the third-set tiebreaker. Down match point at 5-6, he fired a 137-m.p.h ace, his 29th of the day. Up 7-6, with a match point of his own, he watched as Lajovic put the easiest of backhand volleys into the net. Isner didn’t celebrate. Part of him must have known he had been lucky to escape with a win. Another part of him must have known just how frustrated Lajovic, who shook his head in simmering rage as Isner approached for the handshake, would be to lose this one.

“He’s played better throughout most of this match,” Blake said of Lajovic, who won 109 points to Isner’s 102 and was never broken.

Isner, as long as his knee lets him serve, will move on to the second round, where he’ll face 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. The 10-year veteran goes up against a lot of Next Gen opponents these days, but for the most part, at 32, he keeps them at bay. Isner has enjoyed a surprising renaissance in 2017. He has a 34-19 record with two titles, and he’s currently ranked No. 16, up 10 spots from a year ago. While Sock and Sam Querrey have had their surges this year, Isner remains the top-ranked American male.

Isner isn’t just a server. He’s a competitor, too, and he’s not done infuriating opponents the world over just yet.

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