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20 Sep 2018

John Isner: A career year

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A disastrous beginning

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Isner's very best

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Change in mentality

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A Grand Slam champion in waiting?

(Photo credit: Edwin Martinez)

After the first two months of 2018, few could have suspected that John Isner would have won his first Masters 1000 title, reached the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career and returned to the top ten all before the end of July. But that is exactly what the big American has done with 2018 having unquestionably been the best season of his career. It is a feat made all the more remarkable when it is remembered just what a difficult start to the season Isner had.

A disastrous beginning

He began 2018 with opening-round losses in Auckland, Melbourne, New York and Acapulco. His solitary win on Tour had come in Delray Beach against Radu Albot, but he had been unable to back that up, losing to Peter Gojowczyk in the second round. For a player usually able to post consistent, if unspectacular results, it was nothing short of disastrous. The result was that he arrived in Indian Wells, where he reached the final in 2012, in desperate need of some positive momentum.

It did not arrive. He faced a difficult opening test in the shape of former world #6 Gael Monfils and, despite winning the first set, he was unable to close out the victory, falling 7-6 6-7 5-7. Yet the tournament triggered a dramatic turnaround for the man from North Carolina. The cause was surely his fine form on the doubles court with his countryman Jack Sock, who despite serious troubles of his own in singles, has been arguably the doubles player of the season.

Together they won the tournament, besting the legendary Bryan brothers 7-6 7-6 in the final. And within the fortnight, Isner's year as a singles player had undergone a complete turnaround. He was able to take the confidence he had earned in doubles into his singles campaign in the Sunshine State and the results were staggering. Though he entered the tournament along way outside the conversation about potential title contenders, he left it as the champion.

Isner's very best

The American's form throughout the week was sensational. A weight appeared to have been lifted off his shoulders and he played with greater freedom than he had at any previous point in his career. It showed as he beat Grand Slam champions Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, who was riding a 15 match winning streak which had taken him to titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells, to reach his first Masters 1000 final since 2016 in Bercy.

There was a freedom and clarity in Isner's game that had arguably never been seen before and he continued to play excellent tennis in the final. There he faced Next Gen star and world #5 Alexander Zverev. It was a tense and gripping match, albeit short of the quality that had marked the Indian Wells final between del Potro and Federer a week earlier. It was Isner who kept his cool, rallying from a set down to win 6-7 6-4 6-4 and claim the biggest title of his career.

A solid but not spectacular clay court season followed for the American. He reached the quarterfinals in Madrid, but lost a rematch with eventual champion Zverev before reaching the fourth round at the French Open for the second time in his career, though he may have been frustrated by the nature of his 4-6 4-6 4-6 loss there to del Potro. Nonetheless, there was much to be pleased about for Isner, who had returned to the top ten as a result of his efforts over the spring.

Isner then decided to change things up for the grass court season, opting not to play any warm up events ahead of Wimbledon, instead extending his time practicing on the grass after Roland Garros. It proved to be a stroke of genius from the 33-year-old, who posted his best-ever result at a Slam by reaching the semifinals. Indeed, he came to within a whisker of reaching the final before losing a six-hour long 6-7 7-6 7-6 4-6 24-26 epic to Kevin Anderson.

Isner's excellent form continued into the North American hard court swing which he began by retaining his title in Atlanta, showing no signs of a Wimbledon hangover. He may well have been frustrated by early defeats in Toronto and Cincinnati, but he put them behind him in New York. He reached the quarterfinals for the first-time since 2011, only again to be denied by del Potro in a 7-6 2-6 6-7 3-6 loss.

Change in mentality

Since Miami, Isner has been playing a far more aggressive brand of tennis, hitting huge winners combined with a fair share of unforced errors. This change in style and mentality has been key to the American's tremendous form thus far in 2018. Movement has always, unsurprisingly, been an issue for the 6'11" Isner, but in past seasons he failed to account for that, playing too conservatively and writing cheques his body simply could not cash.

But in 2018, his radical change in mentality has proven extremely beneficial to Isner, who has a body and a game built for dominant first-strike tennis. He has also been trusting in his biggest weapon: his serve. The result has been that he has had a hugely impressive year at the line even by his own high standards. He won the ace race at both Wimbledon and the US Open serving a phenomenal 214 aces at the former and 134 at the latter.

A Grand Slam champion in waiting?

But for Isner, the ultimate aim surely remains lifting a Major title, which no American man has done since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003. Unfortunately, Grand Slam's have always been a difficult challenge for the body of the man from North Carolina. Best-of-five sets tennis imposes a heavy toll on any player and for Isner that toll had previously been far too high. He had also seemed to struggle with the pressure of playing on the biggest stage. 

But this year has seen a change in Isner's fortunes at the Grand Slams. He ended his long wait for a first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon and then reached the last eight at the US Open for the first-time since 2011. And though he was unable to progress further at either event, he gave a good account of himself in both matches. If he is able to put himself in the position to play them again, he may well feel that he could take the win.

It is also worth noting that his newfound form at the sport's biggest events is partly the result of his negotiating the earlier rounds more successfully than he has in previous years thanks to his more aggressive mindset. That has allowed him to play his best tennis at the latter stages rather than falling victim to fatigue as he has in the past. For example, he dropped just six sets in total across the first weeks at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open.

It has been a great 2018 for Isner and a spot at the Tour Finals, which he has never previously qualified for, could be in reach. But even if he doesn't make that elite eight, he cannot be anything other than hugely satisfied with his season. And with a newfound confidence in his game, the weapons to match it with the best and the experience of playing big matches at the biggest events, 2019 could just be the year of Isner.