When the U.S. Open begins on Monday, former Georgia tennis star John Isner will have his chance to regain what had been his for over three years.
Isner saw his status as the top American tennis player change on Aug. 22, when Steve Johnson surpassed him by one spot in the ATP rankings. Johnson’s upset victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Western & Southern Open ended Isner’s 37-month run as the highest-ranked American male in the sport.
The latest development in the standings doesn’t overshadow what the former Bulldog has delivered at the professional level. Isner has hardly slowed down since he hit the ATP World circuit in 2007, racking up 10 career singles titles and 8,319 aces along the way.
It all came after a college career in which the prospective sportscaster came into his own and realized his future lie in playing tennis, not calling it from the booth.
“I didn't know I wanted to play pro tennis until my junior year at Georgia,” Isner said. “I told myself if I ever, at any point, got in the top 50 in the world, I'd be really proud of that. Now I've far surpassed that. I've surprised myself.”
Isner arrived in Athens back in fall 2003 after a successful junior career in North Carolina. For Georgia head coach Manny Diaz, Isner looked like the player his program needed. The Bulldogs had an uncharacteristically poor spring and finished 18th in the final rankings, which was the first time the squad ended up lower than fifth since Diaz took over in 1989.
“We were coming from a lull within our program,” Diaz said. “He was the guy I thought we could build the program back around. It turned out to be right on the nose.”
After a solid freshman campaign in which he won SEC Freshman of the Year and reached the NCAA doubles finals with teammate Bo Hodge, Diaz watched Isner begin to take his conditioning much more seriously. Isner grew into his 6-foot-10 frame and added the muscle necessary to play at a higher level. The work paid off, as Isner and Hodge won the NCAA doubles title in 2005. Isner also finished as the No. 13-ranked player in singles.
With the idea of playing professional tennis no longer a pipe dream, Isner only got better in his final year at Georgia. In the fall of 2005, he captured the ITA All-American national championship, becoming the third Georgia player to accomplish the feat. In the spring, he was part of a Bulldogs’ squad that recorded a 32-0 record and delivered Diaz’s third national title.
Collegiate success, however, doesn’t always translate to professional triumphs. A quick look at the ATP rankings today shows that only three of the top 50 players played in college, Isner included.
Fortunately for the sake of his career, Isner got off to a hot start.
Isner began the summer of 2007 by winning the USA F14 Futures tournament in June and followed it up with winning the Lexington Challenger. His biggest triumph came when he grabbed a wildcard spot in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic after Fernando Gonzalez bowed out. After entering at the last minute, Isner promptly pulled off five upsets before falling to Andy Roddick in the tournament finals.
For Isner, it was on from there.
“He probably would be the first to tell you he would have struggled a little bit if he had had to go play Futures for a very long time,” Diaz said. “I think he benefited a lot from the momentum his senior year provided him. He was match tough and he was able to parlay that.”
Roddick’s retirement in 2012 opened the door for Isner to be the de facto American on the tour, a title he didn’t let weigh him down. Since he became the top player from the U.S. on July 29, 2013, Isner has finished first or second in seven tournaments, including winning the BB&T Atlanta Open in back-to-back appearances.
“There's always a good bit of pressure that comes with that but I've felt like I've dealt with it well the last four years,” Isner said before this year’s Atlanta Open. “I hope I can be the No. 1 American for many years to come, but I do know there a lot of guys behind me and a lot of young guys that are going to be doing very, very good things in the future.”
Isner was candid about the way he’s played in 2016, saying it was “not up to my standards” prior to his run to the finals in Atlanta. He said the issue wasn’t his play necessarily, instead pointing out how small the margin of error is in his matches. That wound up being the case again in Atlanta, as Nick Kyrgios eased past Isner in a 7-6, 7-6 victory.
Isner is trying to carry the momentum from his runner-up finish in Atlanta to the U.S. Open. While he’s never taken home the title, it’s been his best of the Grand Slam tournaments, as he has won 69 percent of his matches since his first appearance in 2007.
At 31 years old, Isner has now been playing professionally for nine years. He’s reached the stage of his career where he’s hearing more and more opponents call him their hero, much like he once did when he faced the likes of Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish.
Now one of the seasoned veterans on the tour, Isner wants to prove he’s still one of America’s best while also showing the recent run in Atlanta wasn’t just a flash in the pan. That could all start with a good tournament in New York.
“I've been ranked pretty high for a long time now, and I know I can at the very least maintain that,” Isner said. “I still believe I can get better, even at 31.”