Athletes are judged primarily not on what they have accomplished over the short term, but for the way they have performed across a longer period of time. That is the authentic test, the crucial measuring stick, the only barometer that can be used to accurately assess a player's historical value.
Tennis players with the right set of priorities want to stretch their talent as long and far as it will go. They hope to remain enduringly productive, knowing the windows of opportunity won't stay open indefinitely, realizing that time can turn from a friend into an enemy—sometimes slowly yet often swiftly.
No one understands this competitive minefield better than John Isner. The 6'10" American is 32. He turned pro back in 2007 after a distinguished college career at the University of Georgia, and has spent the past eight years entrenched among the ATP Top 20. Spending that amount of time in such lofty territory is remarkable, but Isner isn’tt content to settle for the same status as he maps out the next year and beyond in his mind.
“It is very hard to stay up there in the Top 20,” a philosophical Isner told me recently. “Eight years of doing that is difficult. It is my biggest accomplishment. I could never have imagined doing that when I turned pro, not at all.”
Isner pauses, and then adds, “On the flip side, though, I have been very close to finishing a year in Top 10, this last year in particular. It just goes to show how small the margins really are. You have a guy like Jack [Sock], who took advantage of that tournament in Paris at the end of 2017, whereas I didn't.”
In that Rolex Paris Masters, Isner willed his way through three rugged matches in a row, defeating Diego Schwartzman, Grigor Dimitrov and Juan Martin del Potro to reach the semifinal round. He then built a 4-2 tie-break lead in the final set against Filip Krajinovic, but would only win one more point. Twice in that stretch, he served-and-volleyed unsuccessfully. Heartbreakingly, Isner bowed out 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), losing a chance to square off against Sock for a place in the ATP Finals at London.
“I lost in the semifinals, and Jack won it, and he made it [into the eight man field in London],” says Isner. “So he went from 20-something in the rankings into the Top 10. I just have to keep putting myself in the right positions throughout the rest of my career. I can play some very good tennis going forward. I know that."
Did that defeat linger for a while in Isner's psyche? His reply is unequivocal.
“It did,” he says, "for a long time. I didn't sleep too well after that match. It was very difficult to swallow, but that is what makes playing sports so beautiful in a sense. It can be agonizing if you care a lot about it, and I do. So that one was tough.
“The good wins are still great, and you are on cloud nine when that happens, but the losses sting. You have to take the good with the bad. I am very fortunate to be doing what I am doing.”