I thought the US Open and weather had a frosty relationship. Before a roof covered Arthur Ashe Stadium, the tournament hosted seven consecutive Monday men’s finals (from 2008 to 2014) because of ill-timed rain.
But then the 2018 Citi Open happened. The first four days of the ATP and WTA combined event have been a storm chaser’s dream and a tournament director’s nightmare. Inclement weather kept players on Stadium court past 1 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday—technically Tuesday and Wednesday—and then postponed part of Wednesday's schedule, including John Isner’s opening-round match against Noah Rubin. Naturally, the start of that match was delayed after more apocalyptic conditions, including a tornado watch.
The constrained schedule put Isner in a difficult position before he struck a single ball in Washington, D.C. If the ninth-ranked American was to claim his second consecutive title in the U.S. summer hard-court season, he would need to win five matches in four days (barring further delays, of course). And it would start with two matches on Thursday, held within the span of a few hours.
Given his history of marathon performances and his weaponry that leads to shorter points, Isner might be the ideal candidate to string together such a run. At Wimbledon, Isner—who won a 183-game match at the All England Club eight years ago—went serve for serve with Kevin Anderson in the semifinals before eventually succumbing, 26-24 in the fifth.
“I was so close to making the final at Wimbledon; it would have been amazing,” Isner said. “I had a tough loss, very long match. But I did a good job of hitting the delete button on that, resetting physically, and more important, mentally. Got myself ready for Atlanta, was able to win that again.
“This is my favorite time of the year, on the surface that I really enjoy. I’ve started my summer season on a good note.”
The 33-year-old ace machine isn’t just paying lip service to the post-Wimbledon hard-court swing. The former Georgia Bulldog won the Atlanta Open for the fifth time last week. Isner's post-college breakthrough came in Washington, D.C., in 2007, with a shocking run to the final. For the most part, he's maintained a ranking high enough to qualify for the two August Masters tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati. And the North Carolina native sometimes even plays Winston-Salem, an ATP 250 tournament that ends just days before the US Open begins. (It’s been reported that Winston-Salem's tournament director spoke to Isner about playing this year.)
Even without Winston-Salem, it’s a gauntlet of tournaments, in some of the season’s warmest conditions, that would tax any player. That, combined with the stop-and-start nature of this week’s play, perhaps explained Isner’s meek performance against Noah, who won 6-4, 7-6 (8). On serve and on the court, Isner's firepower was missing; maybe it was doused in the rain.
First off, all credit to Rubin. It’s the biggest win of the 22-year-old, 152nd-ranked American’s young career, an no matter what he does moving forward, Rubin can say that he not only broke John Isner twice in a set, but that he also beat him in a tiebreaker,
He can also say that he did it while also losing the sole of his shoe:
While Rubin’s future will be worth keeping an eye on, what Isner does moving forward is a more pressing matter. Isner’s overall success this year, including a maiden Masters title in Miami and his first Grand Slam semifinal, gives him a legitimate shot at qualifying for the exclusive ATP Finals. He’s currently ninth in the Race to London, narrowly trailing Anderson, and has said it's something he wants to achieve for the first time. Deep runs at both upcoming hard-court Masters events would go a long way toward making that a dream a reality.
Isner’s high ranking also puts him in an advantageous position for the US Open—a top eight seed would mean avoiding the most difficult opponents until the quarterfinals, a round he’s reached just once in New York, seven years ago. He’s only reached the fourth round of the Open three times in 11 appearances.
“Playing five events in the six weeks before the Open,” said Tennis Channel’s Paul Annacone during the Isner-Rubin match, “is not the best preparation for the Open.”
My guess is that Isner will play both Toronto and Cincinnati. But considering how fatigued he looked today, and considering his deep runs in Atlanta and Wimbledon, is that the best decision? It’s a tough call, but what needs to be considered above anything else is that Isner will likely never have a better shot at a very deep run in New York. If that means cutting Cincinnati after a deep run in Toronto, so be it. If that means cutting Toronto now, to be at full strength for mid-August, so be it. And as much I appreciate a local connection in professional sports, Winston-Salem simply can’t be an option for Isner this year.
When I interviewed Isner for a Tennis Magazine cover story in 2011, he had completely moved past the Battle of 70-68 from the previous summer. As significant as the accomplishment was, he didn’t want to let it define him. He echoed that with his “delete button” comment about his latest Wimbledon epic.
The 2018 season has gone a long way to changing how we define Isner, and changing a long-held narrative that he can’t get over the hump at a Masters event, or go deep enough at major.
On 2/21 I wrote: "The giant American has maintained a position in the Top 20 and can beat anyone in the world. But for all his progress, Isner has never won a Masters 1000 title, and he has never reached a Grand Slam semifinal."— Ed McGrogan (@EdMcGrogan) July 24, 2018
Damn. Happy to own this, and happy for @JohnIsner. pic.twitter.com/Cm1wp6wD52
The remainder of the 2018 season is in some ways house money for Isner. But in other ways, it is the biggest opportunity of his career. He’s started his summer season on a good note, as he said, but how he finishes it will be what fans remember most.
ATP & WTA Washington D.C.
Catch all the action from the Citi Open with live coverage from three courts on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday, July 30th at 2:00 PM ET. All matches also available on-demand.