Friday, January 22, 2010

Isner’s Got Serve - But He’s Also Got Nerve

As the 2010 Australian Open heads toward week 2, everybody in Melbourne Park is finding out about John Isner’s serve. They can’t help it. They can hear the loud pop of his strings traveling like thunder across the grounds, even as they watch other matches on the side courts. But while Isner’s serve is a well-known phenomenon, not everybody understands just what kind of a pressure performer the North Carolina native is.

With two 4th-round appearances in his last two slams, people are getting the chance to take a good hard look at Isner’s game. Many are impressed by what they see.

Isner’s serve is a nightmare for opposing players to face. Not only does he fire aces practically at will on the first serve, but he also generates such kick on his second serve that his opponents are forced to either make contact above the shoulders - never an easy task, even for the pros - or to get aggressive and take it early. Frequently, as Isner’s percentage of service games won indicates, his opponents fail.

But the essence of Isner, believe it or not, is not his serve.

The 6’9” North Carolina native possesses the most coveted intangible in the tennis world: Nerve.
Some call it clutch, and some go one step further and say that clutch is everything in tennis.

Whatever you call it, Isner definitely has a lion’s share of it. Even when he was a rookie on the tour, Isner exhibited the rare ability to elevate his game in crucial moments of matches. In 2007, the 6’9” University of Georgia grad came out of nowhere in Washington D.C. to win five straight 3rd-set tiebreakers and make his first career ATP final. It was a remarkable stretch that saw Isner complete a run in the rankings from the mid 700’s to finally cracking the top-200 for the first and last time.

Since then he’s done everything to prove that his tiebreaker genius is anything but luck.

Later that summer, while still unsure if he had what it takes to make it on the ATP tour, he advanced to the 3rd-round of the U.S. Open to play Roger Federer. Guess who won the first set tiebreaker? In a year where Federer’s tiebreaker record was 15-1 at Slams, a kid with a 193 ATP-ranking dinged Roger with his only tiebreaker loss.

While his serve has made a huge contribution in racking up tiebreaker wins (he’s 3-0 in Melbourne so far, including 2 against Monfils yesterday), the nerve of Isner is the glue that makes him clutch.

After all, he doesn’t get to serve every point in the tiebreaker. When the pressure gets hot, Isner’s also very very good at cutting down on errors, attacking with his underrated forehand, and following approaches to the net in order to take away time and space from his opponent.

He’s so good at it that he has now won his last 8 Grand-Slam tiebreakers, including the biggest of his career, the 5th-set tiebreaker that sealed his upset win (one of Isner's 3 victories over top-10 opponents last year) against Andy Roddick at the 2009 U.S. Open.

It's uncanny, to say the least. Isner is just one of those rare tennis players who plays much better under extreme pressure. He was 6-1 in deciding set tiebreakers last year, and as the legend grows, the advantage that he will have over his opponents in these situations should only widen. Just ask Gael Monfils.

John Isner may be a work in progress in terms of developing a return game that would allow him to win more matches easily and thereby put less stretch on his gargantuan 245 lb. body. In the big picture that may allow him to become a fixture in the top-20.

He'll have plenty of time to work on his weaknesses, because he needs no practice when it comes to coming up big in the business part of sets.

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