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For this latest article in our series of player profiles, we have chosen a different format from the “five strength, five weakness” structure that we previously favored.  Discussing the towering American, we address eight key questions concerning his past, present, and future:

1)       What did we learn from the Marathon Match against Mahut?

From a strictly technical and tactical perspective, the match unfolded more or less as one would have imagined.  Few observers would have been surprised either by Isner’s ability to hold serve repeatedly against an indifferent returner or by his inability to break serve, considering his mediocre return.  Yet the remarkable and encouraging lesson from “70-68” was the fortitude and bulldog-like resolve that the American demonstrated by refusing to abandon the struggle even after it reached surreal proportions.  Just as valuable as his serve, this mental trait augurs well for his future in the tour’s most significant events and in his matches against marquee opponents.  Still winless against the ATP top 5, Isner displayed the sort of courage that he will need in order to break through against them.

2)      What effect will that match have upon his career?

One suspects that no second-round Wimbledon loser has received the degree of attention in which Isner was bathed upon his return, where he even participated in the Letterman Show.  Before his next tournament in Atlanta, he claimed to have grown weary of discussing “70-68” already, but he should brace himself for relentless rounds of questions on it throughout the summer.  Although this early taste of celebrity could erode the focus of a less mature player, we suspect that Isner won’t permit himself to be derailed.  Instead, he likely will reflect upon this match as proof that no mission is impossible, reinforcing his already sturdy work ethic.   During those eleven hours, he earned himself fresh legions of fans throughout the world, and their support will bolster this player who clearly benefits from an encouraging crowd.

3)      How does he compare to his compatriot Querrey?         

Impatiently awaiting its next men’s tennis champion, the American media has subjected these two friends to intense levels of scrutiny.  In short, Isner’s strengths are stronger than Querrey’s, while his weaknesses are weaker.  His additional three inches enable him to create even more audacious angles on his first serve, and his second serve penetrates the box with more depth and pace than does his compatriot’s.  Despite its lower net clearance, his flatter forehand also appears slightly more potent.  On the other hand, Isner can play several games in a row without making solid contact with his returns, whereas Querrey connects on that short with greater consistency.  Maneuvering Isner into his backhand corner reaps somewhat greater rewards than targeting Querrey’s backhand, a more developed and assured stroke although certainly not a weapon.  Mentally, the taller man possess a substantial edge over the Californian, whose focus can falter and whose motivation has been persuasively questioned; Querrey almost certainly would have abandoned “70-68” by 20-20 or so.  From this evidence, one imagines that Isner will remain more vulnerable to early-round upsets than his compatriot and record fewer career titles.  Conversely, he will prove more dangerous to higher-ranked players and more likely to record a startling run at a major reminiscent of Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon.

4)      What does he gain / lose by playing doubles regularly?

Attempting to qualify with Querrey for the doubles event at the year-end championships, Isner has committed himself to additional court time throughout the season.  Often denigrated by commentators and top singles players, doubles can prove a vital tool for honing unsteady components of one’s game.  During these matches, Isner will seek to sharpen his instincts and reflexes, which have hampered his ability to time returns with precision.  Doubles further offers numerous opportunities to finish points at the net, a region where he must venture in order to fully capitalize upon his overwhelming serve.  Beyond the additional fatigue induced by the extra court time, however, doubles can undermine the key trait of self-reliance in a singles star by providing constant mid-match encouragement from someone else (one’s partner).  Consequently, Isner should remain wary of dulling his mental edge and slipping into a more dependent mentality.

5)      What is the impact of his unconventional path to the ATP (via college tennis)?

For much of Isner’s breakthrough season in 2007, the element of surprise boosted his results against opponents unsure of how best to exploit his flaws.  When the scouting report gradually developed, his performance dipped temporarily before rising again.  By choosing to remain at Georgia until graduation, Isner escaped from the pressure-packed hothouse of tennis academies, where all other arenas of life are subordinated to the yellow ball.  Even if this decision took time away from his professional career, he probably has become a more balanced, mature personality as a result.  The sport’s history is littered with the cadavers of prodigies who adopted the opposite path before psychologically or physically collapsing without fulfilling their immense promise.  While Isner possesses less natural talent than Gasquet or Donald Young, for example, he has evolved into a far more imposing competitor; the significance of the game’s mental dimension heightens proportionally with the magnitude of a tournament. 

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6)      How much can he improve his weaknesses?

Determined to become more than a serve or serve-forehand machine, Isner has devoted considerable effort to refining his two-handed backhand with greater depth and accuracy.  If he can transform this stroke from a liability into at least a neutral shot, the American will find himself better equipped to stay in rallies and less easily dragged out of position.  Carrying 81 inches and 245 pounds around a tennis court is not an easy task, so don’t expect to ever see him scrambling along the baseline to outlast opponents after 20- or 30-shot rallies.  While his backhand definitely could improve and his movement probably won’t, his volleying potential is more difficult to discern.  On occasions such as his Davis Cup match against Djokovic, Isner’s net play looked startlingly adept, but on other occasions since then he has fluffed routine volleys in crucial situations.  Not a serve-and-volley specialist like Karlovic, he probably will integrate sporadic forecourt forays into his game but will remain more comfortable at the baseline. 

7)      Is he better designed for the best-of-three or the best-of-five format?

In the more abbreviated format, one can more easily ride a limited arsenal of weapons to victory over an elite adversary or on an indifferent day.  An example of the latter would be his win over Gilles Muller in Atlanta this week, during which he never broke the Luxembourger’s lefty delivery.  Allowing greater time for an opponent to adjust, the momentum-blunting five-set format often exposes a player’s lack of versatility.  Arguing for the American’s potential in the best-of-five format, however, are not only his mental grittiness but a scheduling feature distinctive to majors.  As several tournaments this year have revealed, Isner has developed excellent fitness within a single day or single match but often struggles to recover on the next day.  Therefore, the off-days between every round at Slams would enhance his chances to thrust deep into the draws at the calendar’s four most critical events. (An off-week after “70-68” wouldn’t have sufficed at Wimbledon, so one can’t justly draw conclusions from his one-sided second-round defeat there.)

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8)      Can he break through at a major?

Relying so heavily upon his serve, Isner confronts the challenge of maintaining extremely high efficiency on that shot throughout an entire fortnight against a variety of playing styles.  In order to win a Slam, he must find ways to break serve more frequently against lesser opponents, minimizing court time and mental pressure in the early rounds.  Predictably uneasy on clay, he can be largely discounted at Roland Garros, while the low bounces at Wimbledon may thwart a player of such height.  Isner’s most likely options thus are the two hard-court Slams and especially the US Open, where the fast surface as well as the compatriot crowd will heighten his hopes.  Although the American already has reached his mid-20s, he began much later than most of his peers (see above) and can be expected to endure longer; serve-based games generally age better than those centered around movement and counter-punching.  Isner almost certainly won’t reel off a string of majors, but one could plausibly imagine him winning a US Open someday, should he continue his upward progress and avoid serious injury.

***

Over the weekend, we plan to return with a discussion of the contrasts between attending tennis matches and watching them on television or internet, a relevant issue as we prepare to attend consecutive tournaments during the following fortnight.

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