London: It is a little over a year since the grimmest moment in modern US tennis history, when the country of John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Pete Sampras could not muster a single top 10 player in the men’s or the women’s rankings.
This statistical nadir arrived on May 9, 2011, a low point in the chain of US success that had stretched back to the creation of the rankings in the early 1970s.
So how is the patient doing now? The Olympic Games were something of a tonic, with gold medals in the doubles for both the Bryan brothers and the Williams sisters, and Serena Williams dominated the field in the women’s singles. But what about the shop window of the sport — the men’s singles?
The drought in major tournaments has reached nine years, going back to the day when Andy Roddick brushed past Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final of the 2003 US Open. Since then, Roddick has reached four more grand slam finals, losing to Roger Federer every time. But his star is fading now, at the age of 29. And there is no obvious successor.
Which is not to say the cupboard is completely bare. As we go into the 2012 US Open, the man most likely to pull off an upset has to be John Isner.
Over the past year, Isner has been the biggest good-news story, climbing from the mid-20s to No 10 in the rankings ladder – 10 places ahead of his nearest compatriot, Mardy Fish. Once best known for his marathon three-day match against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon, he is developing into a player whom everyone — even those inside the inner sanctum of grand slam winners — would rather avoid. So far, Isner has not brought his best to the major tournaments, where he has only once reached the last eight (at last year’s US Open, losing in four sets to Andy Murray).
But his Davis Cup feats this year have been remarkable.
He has a 100 per cent record from his four singles matches, including wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer. It’s this ability to frighten the heavyweights that makes him stand out from the crowd. Well, that and the fact that he is two metres tall.
“I like team tennis,” Isner says. “It’s what I played at college.” His CV includes a communications degree and four years representing the Bulldogs of Georgia University. The downside of this scenic (and unconventional) route into the professional ranks is that he is already 27, a year older than Rafael Nadal, with only a third as many ATP matches to his name.
But there are upsides, too. “I knew if I didn’t make it, I could always fall back on my college degree,” Isner explains, “and that takes a bit of pressure off. Whereas if you turn pro out of high school, you have to play against guys that are 27 or 28, and both physically and mentally stronger. “If you’re trying to compete against these guys, week in, week out, you can get into a rhythm of not winning much and that kills your confidence. I won a lot in college. I was one of the best players for the last three years of my career. OK, so it wasn’t at this level. But just winning in general, it helped a lot.”
Isner has continued winning, for the most part, since he turned pro in 2007. Whereas, for an example of a player who’s struggled with his self-belief, you only have to look at his compatriot Donald Young. Now 23, Young’s been talked up as a potential saviour since his teens, yet he comes into his home grand slam with just three wins from 23 matches this year. Even Ryan Harrison, who at 20 is widely seen as one of the most promising talents on the tour, is going through what movie studios call “development hell”.
Harrison is working manfully to force his way up the rankings, reaching a career high of No 43 last month. But he is also having to soak up a lot of defeats along the way. Broadly speaking, US players face similar discouragements to British ones. They tend to come from more comfortable backgrounds and they pick up commercial endorsements and interest from agents early in their careers.
As the US player Bethanie Mattek-Sands puts it: “In other countries there’s a little more of that grit to get out of where they’re coming from. Take some of the Russians, they’re trying to make money and get out of there. The US have it too good. It will take some people getting out of their comfort zone [to see an improvement].”
Even Isner, who is considerably more mature than most of his US peers, does not always find it easy to live out of a suitcase. He complained of homesickness after this year’s French Open, where he suffered an unexpected second-round defeat to world No 261 Paul-Henri Mathieu.
The fact is that few Americans are keen to mix it with the French and Spanish dirt-ballers during the European clay-court season. When the experienced Croatian Ivan Ljubicic made this point on his Twitter page in May, he stirred up a row that lasted a couple of days.
Still, we are back on the US hard-court swing now, where the pace and high bounce of the US Open’s “DecoTurf” should suit Isner’s extraordinary serve. Delivered from around 3.5 metres in the air, it has been described as the biggest weapon in the sport by Andy Murray. But while Isner might win as many as 90 per cent of his service games, he also breaks his opponent just 11 per cent of the time. It’s no wonder he gets into a lot of tie-breaks — a habit he could do with eliminating if he wants to conserve energy and go deep at Flushing Meadows this year.
“It’s been a long, long time since Andy Roddick’s US Open win,” Isner admits. “A lot of it has to do with Nadal, Federer and now Djokovic. To win a grand slam, you probably have to beat two of those three guys, and that’s a tough task. But the US has capable players. Mardy Fish is capable of going deep in a slam. And I think I am, too.”
So are things finally looking up for US tennis? With Serena Williams winning Wimbledon, three Olympic gold medals, and the Davis Cup team heading into a semi-final against Spain next month, 2012 has already been a big improvement on the annus horribilis of 2011. And if Isner can put on a show over the next fortnight, the revival will be almost complete.
Isner warmed up for the US Open by ousting top-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/3) on Friday to stay on track to retain his Winston-Salem ATP title.
The towering American, seeded third in the US Open tune-up event, was due to face second-seeded Czech Tomas Berdych in Saturday’s final.
Berdych defeated seventh-seeded American Sam Querrey 6-4, 6-3 in the semi-finals on Friday.