John Isner is looking for a place to rest.
This is easier said than done, as there are few spots inside the locker room of Houston’s River Oaks Country Club built to accommodate his 6-foot-10 frame. Isner ducks his head as he navigates the corridors and nearly has to limbo through a doorway that leads to the players’ lounge. Inside, he finds a couch flanked by two trophy cases, does a quick mental measurement and sprawls out – just as a trio of tween girls pop in and ask for a picture.
Predictably, this also proves to be a challenge; when he stands, the tallest of the girls barely reaches Isner’s elbows. But after some careful angling, the photos are taken. As soon as he’s done posing, Isner asks the girls for $20 each. They laugh nervously, unaware if he is joking or not. “Just kidding,” he says with a smile.
Though he buzzes with energy and frequently fidgets with his ever-present baseball cap, Isner is fully at ease in the extra-large chassis he’s been given to navigate life. He’s just a little tired. The Greensboro, North Carolina native is currently in the midst of the most grueling stretch of the tennis season: the North American hard-court swing, which culminates with this year’s US Open. Sitting at No. 13 in the ATP rankings, he has played four events since the beginning of August, all on consecutive weeks. He’s compiled an 11-3 record, highlighted by his tenth career title – and third consecutive win in Atlanta – a third appearance in the final of the Citi Open in Washington D.C. and a run as crowd favorite at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, where he served the will of the people by dispatching much-maligned trash talker Nick Kyrgios.
But what it always comes down to is the Open, the most important tournament in U.S. tennis. It’s been a dozen years since an American male won the title on the hard courts of Queens – a drought that has coincided with the rise of the sport’s so-called “Big Four” of Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic. If that streak is going to be snapped in 2015, it’ll likely be Isner who does it; after all, he’s currently the top-ranked American player in the world. On Tuesday, he began his Flushing Meadows campaign with a straight-set win over Malek Jaziri, but can he capitalize on his recent run of great play and finally break through on tennis’ biggest stage? He likes his chances.
You turned 30 earlier this year, yet this is only your ninth season as a pro. Novak Djokovic is 28, but he’s been a pro for almost 13 years. Do you ever feel like you’re trying to make up for lost time?
A lot of people think I’m younger than I am, because I went to college for four years! But as long as my body feels fine and good and healthy, it doesn’t matter to me. I think a lot of these guys, especially the Europeans that are near my age, they were destined for professional tennis careers. That wasn’t the case for me. It wasn’t my dream growing up. I knew I wanted to play college tennis, but I never thought I could be this good. It’s all been a bit of a surprise to me. And on top of that, I wasn’t near good enough to go pro at 18, because I was just so underdeveloped. It’s taken me so long to grow into my body, get myself strong enough – and stable enough – to compete on this tour, week in and week out.
Speaking of competing, what has it been like to read about the demise of American men’s tennis as the sport’s top-ranked American?
I don’t really read it, to be honest. I try not to watch much tennis – I try to separate myself from it as much as possible. All I know is that I’ve been proud of what I’ve done throughout my career. And I was never tabbed to be the next No.1 in the world. If I was 14 and people were writing articles about me being the next Grand Slam champion, and I hadn’t achieved that at my age, maybe it’d be different. But for me, this sort of came out of nowhere. I’m playing with house money. So if I’m the No. 1 American during lean times for American men’s tennis, so be it.
Who do you see among the under-20 set as someone who you could pass the torch to?
I think Jared Donaldson is very good. Stefan Kozlov, Frances Tiafoe. And on top of that, they’re all very nice kids. So it’s good to see.
You’re a member of the ATP Player Council. How has that experience been so far?
It’s been great. Something that I wouldn’t say was unexpected, but I never imagined myself doing it. But now that I’m a part of it – first of all, it’s a big honor to be selected. My peers selected me and the other members. We vote on it. I’m one of the guys ranked 1-50 to represent the tour. We have big meetings periodically throughout the year, and they’re a lot of fun. There’s a lot of positive things going on in our game right now. There’s been a lot more money introduced to our game in the Masters 1000 events. My coach, Justin Gimelstob, is a big part of that as well. He’s a big voice for us players.
You began working with Justin in late 2014, and he’s really helped reinvigorate your game. What has been the main point of emphasis in his work with you?
For starters, he sees the game very well. Much better than I do. He’s called so many matches. He knows every player inside and out. Their tendencies, their strengths, their weaknesses. As far as the tactical side of the game, he’s helped me out a lot. Even if I’m sort of less tactical than other players. My game is not really based so much on X’s and O’s. But at the same time, he communicates to me very well. I made the decision to work with Justin because I knew he had a bright mind and I thought we could be a very good team together. And we have been a good team together. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, which is the most important thing, and I know we have a lot of good results ahead.
Is there anything you two have been working on in terms of technique, or other non-tactical issues?
Yeah, a little bit footwork-wise. It’s not necessarily stroke-wise. Specifically on my backhand. I gotta get out with my left leg more, sort of plant my left leg and hit my backhand instead of bringing my right leg over and hitting it. Because when I do, that it’s tougher to recover. So it’s working on that, working on where to stand on return, but the main key is for me to be as aggressive as possible at all times. Not giving my opponents any rhythm. Making the points short. Because I’m not built to grind out 20- or 30-ball rallies every point, so try to make my opponents feel uncomfortable. I just need to play aggressively and make them come up with the goods to beat me.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. There are some times where you don’t feel confident, and then it’s not that easy to go for stuff. You doubt, you start missing a little and you question yourself. It happens in all sports. When you’re confident and things are going well it seems to be very easy. But it’s really not.
What are your three favorite moments of your career?
You know, I think one that everyone remembers is winning your first title. I was able to do that, in Auckland, New Zealand [in 2010]. Another great memory of mine is my senior year in college at Georgia, when we won the team championships in Athens, Georgia. Funny enough, I played [World No. 14] Kevin Anderson, who took the college route to the pros, too. I played him that day, and our team won, and we had five-and-a-half-thousand fans there. I just remember it was a two-week event, the weather was 70 degrees, no humidity the whole time. Fans loved it. People were tailgating and drinking beer, having fun.
Tailgating for tennis?
I remember the parking lot was packed. It looked like a football game. That’s something I’ll never forget, it was so much fun. Another pretty special memory is beating Roger Federer in the Davis Cup. That was still probably the best match I’ve ever played. It was a lot of fun.
What are three things you’d like to achieve before you stop playing tennis?
Of course, I’d like to win a Grand Slam. It’s something that I didn’t dream about growing up. But now that I’ve been at this level for quite a long time, I’ve played against the best and I’d like to be in that moment. It’s not even winning it – it’s just being in that situation. I want to get to a semifinal of a Grand Slam. I want to be on that huge stage and soak it in. I’ve been on plenty of big stages before. I’ve made finals of Masters 1000 events. I’ve won tournaments. But I feel like I can still do better in Grand Slams.
A couple of years ago we were close to winning the Davis Cup. We were in the semifinals. Winning the Davis Cup would be huge. And I know we’re two years from that now, because we’re back in the relegation group. But winning that would be special. I’ve seen other teams win it. And I saw the U.S. team in 2007 win it, when I was a practice partner, so I saw how much it meant to them. That’d be pretty special. But apart from that, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I just want to do this for as long as I can.