Years of Exceptional Service
John Isner bows out with two final tiebreakers
It is difficult to get the farewells right in tennis, an individual sport that offers no quarter to the aging stalwart. Roger Federer, lest we forget, lost his final set at Wimbledon 6-0.
But John Isner certainly seemed to nail the dismount on Thursday at the U.S. Open. His last singles match in a long ATP career ended fittingly in a fifth-set tiebreaker after he hit 48 aces. His last doubles match later in the day with fellow American retiree Jack Sock ended in a final-set tiebreaker, as well.
That Isner lost both matches was poignant but hardly surprising. His massive, fabulous serve remained until the end one of the greatest weapons in tennis’s long history. He finished with 14,470 aces, a record since aces have been tracked on tour. But Isner is now 38, shorter on staying power and desire; a father of four young children who has become increasingly conflicted about hitting the road.
It was time, and he was smart and humble enough to recognize it. Why hang on when you have so much to come home to?
"It's tough to say good-bye,” Isner said through the tears after his five-set loss to young American Michael Mmoh in the second round. “But eventually this day would come. It’s hard to prepare for the emotions of it. Most importantly, man, I have an amazing life and look forward to every second of that going forward."
As a journalist, I enjoyed my dealings with Isner. He was perceptive and much more accessible than his serve, the sort of fellow who would greet you from on high with no airs. And yet as he heads back to Texas there are a fair number of fans who will not be sad to see him go.
Progressives didn’t like his politics even if one suspects they would have found them more nuanced than they expected in conversation rather than relying on reading the Twitter tea leaves. But Isner’s game, based on all those aces and a grip-and-rip forehand, was also not for everyone. He was no ballet dancer in sneakers like Federer; no matador in a bandanna like Rafael Nadal. At 6-foot-10, he was one of the tallest men to ever play the game. His matches were staccato; his prowess on serve countered by his limitations on return.
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In Isner’s later years, his stylistic successor, the 6-foot-11 American Reilly Opelka, coined the term “servebot”, doing what savvy kids in school learn to do by embracing the pejorative and turning it into something closer to cool.
A servebot, by definition, is an automaton: efficiency over artistry; short points over extended, acrobatic baseline rallies.
“Servebots have to be a little miserable to watch,” Opelka explained.
Isner’s serve was no doubt extraordinary. It ranks No. 1 on the ATP’s all-time serving leaderboard ahead of the 6-foot-11 Ivo Karlovic, Opelka and Canadian Milos Raonic.
But it was not just a monster serve delivered by a giant.
It was a fluid, technically sound and unreadable serve that was phenomenally reliable despite the speeds that Isner could clock. His career first-serve percentage of 69 percent was the best by far of any great server (Pete Sampras’s was 59.5%; Goran Ivanisevic’s 54.9%). Isner averaged nearly 19 aces per match and just over two double faults. Most importantly, he won 91.8 percent of his service games, ranking second in the ATP annals just behind Karlovic’s 92 percent.
Isner’s propensity to hold and struggle to break explain why the tiebreaker became his natural habitat; a fraught, high-risk environment for most players but a pair of well-worn slippers for Big John. He won more tiebreakers than anyone in ATP history.
Isner, long the top American men’s player, is one of the few to have beaten all of the Big Three (Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic) along with the Smaller Two (Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka). Those five players are the only men in the golden era to have won multiple major singles titles (I’m putting Carlos Alcaraz, at age 20, in a different era).
Yet there was more to Isner’s tennis than his serve. He moved surprisingly well for his size and could win points from the backcourt, particularly with the forehand, although it was best that he win them quickly. He also learned through the years to use his wingspan at the net effectively, developing excellent touch with his volleys and better understanding of how and when to attack.
“I think that when he played his best it was incredibly uncomfortable to play against him,” said Justin Gimelstob, who frequently helped coach (and push) Isner. “His style was unique at a time when the sport was so uniform. Everyone is going to minimise it and make it more just about his serve, but I don’t see it that way. The sport had never seen a guy that size who was that coordinated and hit the ball that cleanly. So I think that’s also part of his story.”
The paradox in Isner’s case was that short points often meant long matches, really long matches.
He reached the semifinals of Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2018, his high-water mark, which was the same year he won his most significant title at the Miami Open.
But when all else is forgotten about Isner a century or sooner from now, he will be remembered for a first-round match at Wimbledon in 2010 against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut. Future denizens of earth (and grass) will likely not recall whether he or Mahut won the crazy thing. The match became much bigger than the result: requiring three days and becoming a global talking point even with the men’s soccer World Cup underway in South Africa.
On and on and on and on and on, Isner and Mahut held serve until Isner finally won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3) – and here’s what to retain – 70-68.
Both men were drained, as much mentally as physically, but they were also linked for good after 11 hours and five minutes of mutual observation.
It was the longest match in tennis history by a lot: nearly doubling the record for duration and beating the record for games played by 61. Both records will never be broken, and it bears remembering and maybe even savouring that the fifth set alone — at 8 hours and 11 minutes — would have broken the record for the longest match.
The Isner-Mahut miniseries did not change the rules in isolation, but when Isner played another marathon at Wimbledon in 2018 losing 26-24 in the fifth set to fellow “servebot” Kevin Anderson in the semifinals, the All England Club decided to override tradition and institute a fifth-set tiebreaker.
With players getting bigger and the talent and performance gap getting smaller, there was fear that more marathons were on the way. By 2022, all four Grand Slam tournaments instituted a decisive-set match tiebreaker at 6-all, even the French Open, the final holdout.
The Mahut-Isner scoreline is now trapped in amber, an outlier for eternity unless tastes and rules change (and attention spans get longer) in some century to come.
“It was never going to get broken anyway,” said Isner of his shared record with Mahut.
It is an unusual legacy: forcing a rule change. But it was not Isner’s only contribution to the sport. He and Karlovic proved that the game had room for the exceptionally tall: Opelka, injured this season, will try to build on that if and when he can come back.
Isner also helped revive the connection to the college game. He did not join the circuit full time until 2007 after he had graduated from the University of Georgia and led them to an undefeated season and the NCAA team title.
“I matured in college,” Isner told the website tennis.com. “I got the partying out of my system in college. It’s something that you can’t afford to do on the pro tour. I enjoyed my time there. Georgia is an amazing school. I tried to lead as much of a normal college life as possible.”
Once on tour, he unsurprisingly relished the team atmosphere of Davis Cup and the newfangled Laver Cup. Though four-year college players like Isner remain very rare on the ATP Tour, former collegians are not. There were 20 in this year’s 128-player U.S. Open men’s singles draw. This seems a good thing in a profession where the odds of success are so long. College gives players more to fall back on and better tools and greater maturity to cope with the pressures and complexities of being an independent contractor at a young age in a Darwinian global sport.
Isner put his delayed start to good use, playing 16 full seasons on tour and peaking relatively late. He reached No. 8 in the singles rankings in 2018, and for most of his career avoided significant injuries: often the bane of a big man in a pounding, grinding sport.
“John continued to add dimensions to his game, and he worked hard at it,” Gimelstob said. “He was incredibly diligent about his body.”
But for all Isner’s efforts and despite that amazing serve, he could not quite win the big one. Though he won 16 tour singles titles, he never reached the final of a major and was unable to end his country’s unprecedented drought. When Isner turned pro in 2007, Andy Roddick was the last American man to have won a Grand Slam singles title (he did it at the 2003 U.S. Open). When Isner retired on Thursday, Roddick was still the last American man to have won a singles major.
The Big Three set the bar too high, even for Big John, which is just one more reminder of their greatness.