John Isner Starting to Stand Tall for American Tennis
It's a freak of nature, or something, when one player can bounce his serve over his opponent. But John Isner did it on set point in the third set Friday at the Australian Open, where he beat 12th seed Gael Monfils 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5).
It was a big win for Isner, a big win for U.S. men's tennis. It does not move Isner into a star status and honestly does not even save face for American tennis.
It's a step for both. Isner is now the second-best American, which sounds a little funny to be No. 2 in what has been a one-man race for years. He still needs a breakthrough victory, and won't likely get it against Andy Murray in the fourth round.
At least he's getting to these matches, now.
The truth is, American tennis is still struggling. Late in the first week of the year's first major, the only Americans left are the Williams sisters, Andy Roddick and Isner.
That's one more than usual.
Isner is even getting the celebrity-entourage thing going, as he has been seen with Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who came to Australia.
"I met him five or six days ago, hit it off since then," Isner said. "He's watched every one of my matches. I've watched him a million times. Kind of cool to have him in my corner.''
No offense to Smith, but this always leaves Isner at No. 2 among NFL-buddy followers. Terrell Owens is here to watch Andy Roddick, and apparently is fast becoming a fan, texting Roddick regularly from obscure matches.
But hey, Isner has someone famous trying to connect with him. And after Isner won his first title last week in New Zealand, Roger Federer made a point of congratulating him in the hall near the locker room here.
Anyway, I just called Isner a freak of nature, and that's really a problem for him, that people would see him that way. He's 6-foot-9, and crushes his serve. He had 26 aces against Monfils.
The problem with that is that the big serve from the big guy is seen as a gimmick, not as real tennis. Ivo Karlovic, who's 6-10, is a gimmick. After he beat 13th seed Radek Stepanek in the first round, I asked Stepanek if maybe the thinking on Karlovic has been unfair, that maybe he has more game than just a serve.
Stepanek shook his head and said, "I wouldn't say that."'
When Isner arrived on tour out of the University of Georgia in 2007, I would have described him the same way. He has developed a net game to increase pressure behind his serve, built up a solid forehand and dramatically improved his conditioning.
His serve, which reached 139 mph against Monfils, is still the core of his game, But James Blake said the other day that in the past, all you had to do was return Isner's serve to beat him.
Now, Isner still gets free points on his serve, but also has something else to fight with.
He has reached the fourth round of the past two majors, and no other American man can say that. He beat Roddick in the third round of the U.S. Open on Ashe Stadium in a marquee night match.
"Just the way I won that match and kind of the stage I won it on, it showed me that I belonged in the top 20 players of the game," he said. "I know that's where my ranking is going, and I'm going to get there.
"You know, after beating him there, there's nobody I'm scared to play. If I play my game and I play well, I like to think I can beat anybody.''
Meanwhile, American men's tennis has had a good week. Not great, good.
While Sam Querrey continued to struggle with his confidence some, losing in the first round, James Blake, at 30, lost to U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro 10-8 in the fifth set in what was his best match in years.
Maybe ever. He has started to develop a net game, and seems to have a few years left.
Isner, at 24, has emerged as a player who will almost surely be in the top 20 by mid-year.
And Roddick, who had a resurgence in his career last year, has now started the year 8-0, with a tournament title.
He beat Feliciano Lopez Friday to advance to the fourth round, where he should beat Fernando Gonzalez.
Roddick, who played years without using his brain, added strategy last year, and continues to do so. He has turned into a grinder, and not just a banger.
We're a long way from calling this a re-emergence of American tennis, when only two men and two women are still alive this early in a major. Maybe it's just a little less embarrassing to see an extra name in the mix, a name other than Williams or Roddick.
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