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Big wins, confidence power success for all-court player Isner

April 4, 2012 10:15 AM
John Isner is ranked No. 11 in the world.
John Isner in action during his Davis Cup win over Roger Federer.
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com

ROQUEBRUNE-CAP-MARTIN, France – After John Isner defeated Roger Federer in the U.S. Davis Cup Team’s 5-0 first round win over Switzerland, the attention and press about American tennis quickly turned to his improved game and has kept building, especially after he defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open last month.
A lot of press about Isner in recent years had centered around his playing the longest match in tennis history in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010, a 11 hour, 5 minute, 183-game match win over the course of three days against Nicolas Mahut, and some talk afterwards was about his need to improve his return game to go with his overpowering serve.
This year’s press has been different: The attention has turned to Isner as a player with an all-court game, who can be dangerous on any surface and against anyone with a number of weapons besides just his serve and dominating forehand. It may have been a surprise to some in the world for him to upset the 16-time Grand Slam champion on clay in Switzerland, but not to Isner or any member of the U.S. Davis Cup Team.
Isner’s ascension up the ATP rankings to the world No. 11 was something that really began building during his play the second half of 2011. After reaching a career-high of No. 10 in the world last month, with the confidence he has now, he knows he can keep improving his game to cement his place among the game’s elite.
His win over Federer was one of his biggest career wins and definitely helped his confidence as it was his first win over arguably the greatest player in history. It was especially notable in the dominating fashion Isner closed out the match, displaying an excellent return game, including smacking three consecutive return winners to close out the match to win in four sets.
"That was the best way I have ever finished off a match (three return winners)," Isner said. "And I picked a pretty good player to do it against."
Yet Isner's improvement has not been just about or because of that victory as his game and confidence have been growing for a while. Isner and the whole U.S. team knew he could win that match, in his third event of 2012, after closing out 2011 with 25 of his 36 match wins for the entire season after his second round loss at Wimbledon, including winning his second and third career singles titles at Newport and Winston-Salem.
"I think it had been building. To me that was not a complete surprise. I think I surprised maybe some other people but I don’t think I surprised anyone on our team," Isner said of his win over Federer. "Everyone believed in me and everyone believed in our team in that tie. For me, I did feel like it was coming because I did play well the second half of last year after not playing well the first five months of 2011. It was a gradual, building process and I think that match was the culmination of all my success and good play."
Isner, a North Carolina native who turns 27 this month, is pleased with the improvement in his return game. Returns have not been something Isner has devoted a bulk of time to, instead focusing on improving all aspects of his game, which still starts with his serve - that he can hit over 140 mph from various angles coming off his imposing 6-foot-9-inch frame - and forehand.
"It has come around," said Isner of his return game. "The more matches I play and more matches I win the more confident I am going to get. I feel like I can win matches easier than I have in the past. For me, I feel like I have been working on it. It was not something I was not putting loads and loads of time into but I was very confident that day (against Federer), especially in that fourth set I was feeling very comfortable and it all kind of came together."
His opponents have noticed. Djokovic remarked after his loss to Isner at Indian Wells that he found himself marveling at Isner's improvment, noting that Isner’s increased belief in his game should carry him far.
"It's a matter of belief, I think, in the end, and confidence on the court. I mean, with that serve and with that forehand he's got the ability to be a top 10 player," Djokovic said about what he thinks brought Isner up the rankings. "(But) he had that already a couple years back. It's just a matter of really trusting your instincts and your strokes and your quality. I think it all came together for him now, and he's deservedly in the top 10."
As Isner takes the court this upcoming weekend at the Monte Carlo Country Club as the No. 1 singles player for the U.S. Davis Cup Team as it prepares to play France in the quarterfinals, the improvement in his game is something his opponents here have noticed as well. French Davis Cup Captain Guy Forget noted that Isner is "more than just a forehand and serve," but instead has a great backhand and net play as well -- and that to defeat him now, it is not enough to focus on returning his serve.
"It shows that I am gaining a little bit more respect," Isner said. "I am more than just a serve but it all does start with my serve and after that my forehand. They are still my biggest weapons and I am still going to utilize them as best as possible. But again, I am always working on my game in general."
Isner came to Monte Carlo expecting to be the No. 2 singles player behind his good friend Mardy Fish, but Fish had to withdraw from the tie due to a minor health scare, bumping Isner to the top spot, where he has not been since his very first Davis Cup tie back in the 2010 first round away against Serbia.
He played three matches that tie, losing his first singles match to Viktor Troicki in four before teaming with Bob Bryan to win the doubles rubber. On the final day of the tie, Isner played the deciding fifth singles rubber and competed his hardest but fell to Djokovic in five sets for a 3-2 win for Serbia.
A lot has changed since then for Isner as a player and a person and Davis Cup brings out the fire in him, knowing he is playing for his country and has the support of his team, including U.S. captain Jim Courier.
"I have come a long way. It does seem like a long, long time ago. It was more than two years but I do remember that match," Isner said of the Serbia tie and match against Djokovic. "I didn’t play poorly but I lost two of the three points our team lost so it was very disappointing.
"I say this a lot, but every match the only thing you can control is how you compete out there. And when it comes to Davis Cup, you just want to compete your absolute hardest even if you are playing like crap that day. As long as you are competing and engaged in every point, you are going to give yourself a chance. That is what I did in Serbia. I was playing well there but that is what Davis Cup brings out in you – that competitive drive."
This weekend when he is facing world No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and likely world No. 13 Gilles Simon in singles, he will be relying heavily on Courier’s advice during changeovers and in formulating a game plan, much like he does with his regular coach, Craig Boynton, who also once worked with Courier, when he is at ATP tournaments throughout the year. The two have worked together for three years and Isner has confidence he has a great team of people, especially Boynton, and a great captain in Courier, who knows Isner has what it takes to reach the very top.
"If he has time to set up and put some power behind the ball, as I think I said maybe in December, he's the most destructive force in tennis," Courier said. "He's unplayable against if he does what he does very well. You just don't have the conversation at all. It's one-way traffic.
"I believe he can be every bit as good on grass as he is on a slow hard court or a slow clay court or a fast hard court," he added.
Playing on a team is something that comes naturally to Isner after his four All-American years competing at the University of Georgia, although back as a college student representing his school, he never thought he would be one day be in his current position, and feels very lucky.
"To be honest, when I was playing college tennis, I never dreamed I would play Davis Cup" he said. "I never thought it would happen and now that it is, it is such an honor. Back in the day, I was playing for my school, competing against other schools and now I am playing for my country. It is very, very special and it is obviously a privilege and I am very blessed to be able to do it. It does bring out the best in me; it brings the best competitor out in me. I am not going to necessarily play my best every time in Davis Cup, but it makes me compete very well."
Through all the new press and attention of the past few months, however, Isner’s life really has not changed all that much, aside from doing more interviews and having a little more spotlight. He still catches ESPN and watches game highlights on his computer when he is on the road outside the U.S. as he always did, watches YouTube clips of the World Wresting Entertainment (WWE) matches he has missed and is such a fan that he tweets about WWE news and matches and wears WWE paraphernalia on occasion, including t-shirts and boxers. A big WWE fan for a while, Shawn Michaels is his all-time favorite wrestler and he likes Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, although his favorite among current wrestlers can vary.
Isner is currently the No. 2 ranked American player behind Fish, although he could soon pass him as he is just 100 rankings points behind. He is looking to keep up his level of play throughout the year and keep building on this success.
"I am definitely more confident in my game and I really do believe that I can play with those top guys in the world," Isner said. "I beat Djokovic this year, it was a very close match, it could have gone either way and I beat Roger. I have had a good year so far and I have had some pretty good wins to back that up.
"I like the attention and the press for the most part, you get that when you play well, I don’t necessarily read (the articles) but I enjoy doing the interviews," he added. "It is nice and I am glad that I have got my ranking up pretty high. I want to keep climbing and keep playing well through the whole course of the year and stay consistent with my results. If I can do that, I can keep climbing higher."


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