Is It Time to Lose Faith in John Isner, America's Next Great Tennis Hope?

The 27-year-old would-be phenom lost in the first round of Wimbledon, crushing fans who are looking for the next Andre Agassi.

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As fans of American men's tennis know all too well, this country has lacked a homegrown champion to call our own since Andre Agassi retired from the ATP tour in 2006. For a fleeting moment in the first half of the 2000s it seemed like Andy Roddick was destined to become tennis' next great star. But he never developed an all-around game that could rival the complete skills of players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and as a result only held the No. 1 ranking for just under four months. There was also a period when James Blake looked primed to consistently compete with the best players from the rest of the world, but he ended up being better at writing a compelling memoir than winning tournaments. America's only other male player of consequence in recent years has been Mardy Fish, a chronic overachiever who always plays his heart out but is never a real contender at major. So while the Bryan brothers have spent the last decade becoming one of the greatest doubles teams in tennis history, and Venus and Serena Williams have established themselves as two of the greatest female players to ever pick up a racket, America has lacked a men's singles champion to stoke interest on the domestic front.

Earlier this year it looked like the plight of American men's tennis was about to change. John Isner seemed to have had the potential to morph from an oversized specter looming over American men's tennis into a force with the power to disrupt the sport's established hierarchy. American tennis fans looked like they would finally get someone they could root for.

During his first four years on the ATP tour, Isner was something of a novelty act. At six feet nine inches, he is atypically tall for a tennis player and can literally stand head and shoulders above the competition. The most comical image from a match between Isner and Roger Federer at this year's BNP Paribas Masters 1000 tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., occurred during the post-match handshake. Federer had to strain just to reach Isner's shoulders, and the pair looked like they could have been staging a promotional shot for a sequel to My Giant rather than enjoying a congenial postgame embrace. Isner's most notable contribution to tennis thus far was his role in the longest tennis match in history, a five-set Wimbledon marathon against Nicolas Mahut that occurred only because the proprietors of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club unfortunately believe that a 70-68 fifth set is more pragmatic than a match-ending tie break.

But starting in February of this year, Isner showed that he may be capable of making more meaningful contributions to the sport. That month, he defeated Roger Federer in a Davis Cup match that was played on clay. It was his second solid showing on the slow red surface in 12 months—in the first round of the 2011 French Open, Isner had become the first player to push clay court maestro Rafael Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros. Isner's sudden prowess on clay, a slower surface that tends to favor mobile players over big hitters, seemed counterintuitive, but members of the media argued that those conditions actually suited his game. ESPN's Greg Garber wrote, "The ball typically bounces higher on clay than a hard court, which puts it right in Isner's strike zone" in an article titled "Slow conditions perfect for Big John Isner." The idea that Isner and clay were a match made in heaven was a bit hard to swallow, since Americans have historically struggled on the surface and Isner's game seems tailor-made for faster playing conditions. But he continued to play well on the surface and expressed an affinity for clay court tennis. Perhaps Big John could succeed where so many other Americans had failed.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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