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John Isner Talks About How It All Began

Sep 1, 2010 – 4:22 PM
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Jordan Schultz

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In the course of one match -- one very, very long match -- John Isner went from a highly ranked American into a global phenomenon. Isner was the winner of tennis' all-time longest match in the first round of Wimbledon in June, totaling eight hours and 11 minutes and spanning three days.

Blessed with an imposing 6-foot-9 frame, monster serve and massive forehand, it's easy to comprehend how Isner rose to tennis fame, but his journey to the ATP Tour and media prominence began long before he tantalized Nicolas Mahut across the pond.

In fact, such a voyage didn't always seem possible. Oscar Blacutt is the Director of Tennis at High Point Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., and an old coach of Isner's. He shed some light on Isner's early struggles. "Honestly, he didn't always look great out on the court," Blacutt said in an e-mail.

In truth, Isner had a very difficult time dealing with his growth spurts and it wasn't until college that he really began to flourish. "He knew how to dig deep, and somehow he would find a way to come up with a win," Blacutt said. "And believe me, I know that you have to be tough to win at a high level, especially when you are not playing your best tennis. To me, that says a lot.
"I feel like I'm getting there. ... I've been doing everything I possibly can to get to 100 percent. As I'm talking to you right now my foot's in an ice bucket. ... When I'm out there on the court and the adrenaline's flowing I don't anticipate it being an issue."
-- John Isner on ankle injury

"In fact, in eight years of coaching him, I don't remember him ever getting burned out at all. But it wasn't until he was 16 and started beating high college level players at Open tournaments that I really realized that the bigger the challenge was, the tougher he would compete. He LOVES to compete."

And unlike many top juniors, Isner decided against turning pro and elected to attend the University of Georgia.

"I don't think that idea of going to college was ever put aside," Blacutt says. "He wanted to stay close to his family and his hometown of Greensboro."

In this Q&A on the eve of Isner's 2010 U.S. Open debut, the 25-year-old American dishes on the pressures of the ATP Tour, what surface he feels least comfortable playing and just how bad -- or not -- that right ankle is feeling.

Jordan Schultz: Talk about the pressures of the tour and how you manage being on the road as much as you are.

John Isner: I try to keep everything as normal as possible, because each week, you know you're trying to have a huge week and obviously that's not gonna happen every time, and for us tennis players we get paid for how well we do. Without a doubt, a lot of pressure, but you gotta try to keep a normal routine, have a good team around you, and I think that's what I have.

JS: Who do you turn to when your game needs refinement or you aren't quite as focused as you need to be?

JI: Pretty much my coach, he does a lot for me. Obviously with the X's and O's of the game, but he also understands me off the court, he knows my game better than anybody else as well as on the court. So whenever I'm struggling I usually turn to him, but it's also he usually recognizes when I'm not in the right frame of mind, so he can kind of sit me down and try to put me back in that right frame of mind, so really, I can confide in him a lot.

JS: Your former coach, Oscar Blacutt, mentioned you sometimes weren't the most coordinated growing up. Obviously growing as much as you did played a key role as well.

JI: In high school, I wasn't the most coordinated (because) I was just trying to grow into my body, and I think sometime around my junior year in college I finally started feeling coordinated and really comfortable on the court. ... Ever since then, I've really made a conscious effort into putting a lot of time into my game off the court, and that's in the weight room. For me you know I have to stay strong and limber because I have such a big body. If not, you know things can start to break down. For me I've always been really disciplined as far as what I do off the court, in the weight room and on the field conditioning-wise.

JS: Is it harder for you to play shiftier guys that move really well, like Gael Monfils, who in turn try to make you uncomfortable on the move?

JI: No, it's not. I mean me in particular, I have a good record against Monfils, I've played him four times and won three times. Guys like that don't, you know they don't give me trouble. The game plan against me is to try to get me moving as much as possible, so I know that going in. So no matter who I'm playing it doesn't really bother me. I just gotta go out there and try and execute my game plan.

JS: What is the most challenging surface for you to play on?

JI: I think right now it's grass. You wouldn't think so but the ball stays pretty low on grass and obviously being really tall that's a bit of a disadvantage for me. But right now I would say grass. I think in time, the more I play on it, I think grass can become one of my best surfaces. I just don't quite know how to play the right game on it just yet, but as of right now, I enjoy playing on clay.

JS: When did you really realize you had made it on tour? Perhaps an epiphany moment when you kind of looked up and realized you'd arrived?

JI: Yeah, it was last year at the U.S. Open when I beat Andy Roddick. That was the biggest win of my career, and I did it against Andy at the U.S. Open on Arthur Ashe Stadium, you know, in the tournament where he usually plays his best. Fortunately it was a little better than a bad game. I think at that moment I realized that I truly belonged.

JS: How are you feeling with the ankle? Do you feel like you're close to 100 percent?

JI: I feel like I'm getting there. I know I have one more day before my first match (Wednesday). I've been doing everything I possibly can to get it 100 percent. As I'm talking to you right now my foot's in an ice bucket. Yeah, you know I'm icing it a lot, a lot of massage. I'm running with this micro-current machine that I bought for my ankle. You know, I'm keeping it elevated, I'm doing everything I absolutely can to get it in the best shape possible but I think come Wednesday ... when I'm out there on the court and the adrenaline's flowing I don't anticipate it being an issue.
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