After 10 straight years in Top 20, John Isner continues to aim high

After 10 straight years in Top 20, John Isner continues to aim high

"You look at Roger and he has been in the Top 3 for 15 years in a row, but I think for me I honestly left college not knowing what I was capable of," said the 34-year-old American

After achieving a Top 20 ATP Ranking for the tenth consecutive year, capturing a 15th career singles title in the process, and celebrating the arrival of his second child in October, John Isner is enjoying being home with his family in Texas. Despite a disrupted 2019 campaign when he was forced out of the competitive arena for three months with a foot injury, Isner remains the  No. 1 player among all Americans, and that is no small thing for the 6’10” competitor.

When we talked on the telephone a few days ago, Isner thoughtfully addressed a wide range of topics. Inevitably, the conversation turned at one point to the upcoming inaugural ATP Cup in Australia which will start on January 3. He will be joined on the American team by Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek Down Under.

Isner has played Laver Cup the past couple of years and has frequently played Davis Cup. Now the ATP Cup will make its debut and the public will witness a third different international team competition in less than four months.

“Team events are very healthy for the game,” he says, “I know from experience that Laver Cup is fantastic. People  have nothing but good things to say about it. I did not play Davis Cup this year with the new format. You don’t want the schedule drawn out with multiple, multiple team events. There are some weeks that are better than others for team events. I like the timing of ATP Cup, maybe selfishly. I am fortunate to have made our U.S. team, so I might have a leg up on other players because I can get down there and compete for points and get guaranteed matches while most importantly playing for my country. ATP Cup is a cool concept. The players are very much behind the event.”

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When asked how ATP Cup might set itself apart from the other team events, Isner says, “Are we going to feel great pride playing for our country, or is it going to seem more like an individual event? I think the players are going to take it very seriously playing for their countries and it is going to be a fantastic event for years to come. It is a great initiative and it is always good to try to reinvent the game a little bit. That is what the ATP has done. We are taking a risk here in creating this new event, but you want to be on the cutting edge. I think it will be very successful.”

In turn, Isner believes the proposed dual leadership at the top of the ATP board will also benefit the game. He is a veteran member of the ATP Council and is confident that having Andrea Gaudenzi serving as the new Chairman, perhaps flanked by Massimo Calvelli as CEO, will behoove the players.

As Isner explains, “A lot of us—and I was one of them—felt that the system was sort of broken, so having Calvelli come in along with Gaudenzi would give us two established, experienced and smart minds. To have two leaders instead of one can only positively impact the players and the tour. It is a new structure at the top which I think will be a very healthy for the game and the ATP.”

Moreover, he believes the recent return of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to the Player Council will be unifying for the players. He feels they will work well with the player leader Novak Djokovic. He has seen evidence of that already.

“A lot of people think there is maybe a not so nice rivalry between these three players,” he says. “But that is not the case. I have seen all three of them in the meeting room together. They get along, bounce different ideas off each other and have the utmost of respect for each other. All three care a lot about the future of the game. It was incredible that Roger and Rafa stepped up again after serving in the past and came back to the Council. They are lending their advice to Novak who has been our player President. They are three very bright people, not just great players.”

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Isner, of course, has done his part to make the Council thrive. But as he approaches his 35th birthday in late April, he is immensely proud of the consistency he has demonstrated across the past decade with his uninterrupted run among the Top 20. The only other players to finish the past ten seasons inside the Top 20 are Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Where does Isner place that achievement among his top honors?

“I rank it pretty high up there,” he responds. “Everyone has different levels in this game. You look at Roger and he has been in the Top 3 for 15 years in a row, but I think for me I honestly left college not knowing what I was capable of. When this started in 2010, if you would have told me that I would be in the Top 20 ten years in a row, I would have said absolutely no way in hell could I do that. The tour is so brutal but I have been fortunate to be very healthy for a large part of my career. Doing it ten years in a row is a cool number.”

It was all the more significant that Isner maintained his top 20 status in 2019 because he injured his foot in the middle of his Miami Masters 1000 final with Federer and was gone from the game recuperating for three months. As he laments, “I had that good Miami but all of the momentum I created was essentially lost because I was out for three months with one of the few injuries I have ever had. I missed two Masters 1000s and a Slam. That was a tough pill to swallow and with my injury it was not something I could rehab. I was essentially sitting on my ass for a long time waiting for the injury to heal. But all things being said it was a pretty successful year for me on and off the court.”

The American wants to sustain his high standards. He looks around the landscape of the sport and there is Federer at 38, Stan Wawrinka approaching 35, Nadal at 33, Djokovic at 32 and other accomplished players all succeeding handsomely at different stages of their thirties.

“It helps so much knowing that these players are doing this into their mid and even late thirties, “ he says. “That is encouraging to me. Right now in the off season I know how good I am feeling on the court and in the gym. I am feeling much better than 34 years old. I am strong, healthy, fit and eager to get back down to Australia and  do well there. There are a lot of guys a little bit younger or older than me doing well, and the Big 3 are incredible. I am very lucky to be playing at the same time as them because they are doing it at a pretty advanced tennis age. It shows that I can do it as well.”

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And yet, Isner realizes that the windows of opportunity will not be open interminably. He realizes that retirement might be only a few years away.

As he explains, “Yes, retirement is something I am actually  starting to think about. It is not something that scares me either. I don’t want to be done with tennis and have it hit me like a frying pan in the face. I want to be able to transition into retirement very easily and the No. 1 thing that is going to allow me to do that is that I am going to be able to watch my kids grow up. I am going to be able to walk them to school every day because the school is right beside my house. I am really looking forward to that. As far as what I am going to do when I am not practicing tennis for a job, I am trying to figure that out slowly but surely.”

He recently established the Isner Family Foundation, which will be strongly connected with hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, primarily helping victims of cancer. That will surely be a post-career centerpiece in his life.

Isner says, “I think this has been a good time to start it, especially now that I have definite roots in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The foundation will benefit hospitals in the area while the charity I had before in Chapel Hill, North Carolina raised money that went to the hospital there. I am in Dallas when I am not on the road, so the foundation will be a big priority for me. We are planning two marquee events a year. This is something I want to do now but also when I am done with tennis. Dallas is the perfect area to do it with its big tennis community.”

Isner’s charitable nature has extended to his fellow American players. Time and again, younger countrymen like Opelka, Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and others have spoken highly of Isner’s generosity toward them. The fact remains that he is not only a friend of those players but also a rival. How does he navigate that territory?

“It is kind of tough. But I have learned from great guys in Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish. When I was coming up they were very established and those were the guys I was having great matches against. At the same time they were mentoring me along the way. I consider myself a mentor now to these younger guys. I am always available to them for advise on anything. At the same time, we are all competitors who want to beat each other. We really do cheer for each other and we are very good friends who are happy when everyone is doing well. But, of course, we want to beat each other.”

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Sometimes experience carries Isner past his friendly adversaries, but not always. In 2019, for instance, Opelka defeated Isner in three agonizingly close contests at the Australian Open, the New York Open and in Atlanta. All ten sets they played against each other were settled in tie-breaks. Isner has a career record of 427-278 in tie-breaks for a .606 winning percentage, but Opelka prevailed in seven of those head-to-head sequences—Opelka is 6’11 and Isner stands 6’10. They have a lot in common.

“We definitely relate to each other,” says Isner. “We are both big guys. We both have big weapons. Both of us have parts of the game that are going to be more difficult. He is a good friend of mine and any time we play it is going to be close. No one is going to win 2 and 2. Our matches are essentially coin flips. Maybe Reilly doesn’t have quite as much pressure on him to beat me as I do to beat him. Pressure reveals itself in funny ways sometimes. But all credit to him for beating me three times. They were heartbreaking matches for me but that is the nature of tennis and the nature of my game especially.”

Having said that, Isner has a different perspective since becoming a father for the first time in September of 2018 and adding another kid to the family less than six weeks ago. He says, ‘Things are a lot more fun now than when I was playing before having kids. They are the source of inspiration for me. I want to be able to play on tour long enough that the kids remember watching their Dad play a little bit. That is very cool. Life has changed for me, and all for the better. Tennis without a doubt is not the most important thing I am doing now. Fatherhood and my marriage come first and tennis is secondary after that. My wife Maddy and I have been very blessed to start a family. I wouldn’t change anything. From here on in, I just want to enjoy my tennis as much as possible. My goal for the rest of my career is that every match I lose, I want to leave the facility that day or night happy. I don’t want to be bent out of shape because I lost a match. All I want is to enjoy it out there and continue to realize how lucky I am to play this sport for a living.”