Courtesy: Georgia Athletics
A four-time All-American at the University of Georgia, John Isner has emerged as one of professional tennis' great young stars. Named the Association of Tennis Professionals' Most Improved Player in 2009, Isner is currently ranked 19th in the world. Georgiadogs.com had the chance to catch up with John as he prepares for his second career appearance in the prestigious French Open.
georgiadogs.com: Currently, you're ranked 19th on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour singles list. You entered professional tennis in 2007 ranked 839th in the world. How would you describe the past three years, using your ascent up the rankings as a reference point?
John Isner: Well I first started out as a pro that really no one outside of the college ranks knew about. I had a lot of success in college but that does not necessarily translate into success on the pro tour, so I really had no idea what to expect. I was fortunate enough to do really well in my first couple of "minor league" events and in my first ever ATP event I made the finals. I knew right then and there that I could make a living out of this sport. The ride has not always smooth but I truly am living a dream.
georgiadogs.com: You were named the ATP's Most Improved Player in 2009, then subsequently won your first professional title at the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand, earlier this year. What specific improvements in your tennis game would you say have been key to your recent success?
JI: I have been working with the same coach now for almost 16 months and he has made drastic improvements in my serve and my forehand. Those two shots have always been my weapons, but over the last two years they have gotten even better.
Another huge component to my success is my overall strength and conditioning. Since I am such a big guy, I have to put in a lot of time in the weight room and that has made every part of my game better. What it also does is keep me fit and healthy and prevents my body from breaking down. Even though tennis is not technically a contact sport, your body can take a beating, so being physically fit and strong has made a big difference in my game as well.
georgiadogs.com: You made an impact on the tennis world in your first season with a surprising run to the finals of the Legg Mason Classic, where you dropped a 6-4, 7-6(4) decision to Andy Roddick. Two years later, you avenged that loss to Roddick at the U.S. Open, winning 7-6(3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6(5). What other matches do you personally consider memorable or important in your professional career thus far?
Isner beat Andy Roddick in the 2009 U.S. Open. Photo/Bill Kallenberg
JI: Beating Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open last year was unquestionably the biggest win of my career. The fact that I did it at arguably the biggest tennis event in the world makes it my best win. That said, I have played some matches that stick out in my mind. One off the top of my head was my match versus Roger Federer at the 2007 U.S. Open. I came out of college that year and no one knew who I was and I found myself facing the greatest player of all time on center court of the U.S. Open. I was able to win the first set that day and the crowd absolutely erupted at that point. Although I pretty much got wiped off the court after that, I will never forget it that moment of winning the first set.
Another one was my Davis Cup match versus second-ranked Novak Djokovic in his home country of Serbia. Playing in front of 20,000 people that don't like you very much was pretty tough but I fought tooth-and-nail with him that day. Though I eventually lost in 5 tough sets, that also is another day I will not forget.
georgiadogs.com: At present, you're also seventh in the doubles team rankings, according to ATPWorldTour.com, along with partner Sam Querrey. The two of you have even met as opponents three times, twice in the final round of an event. Describe your relationship with Sam.
JI: Sam Querrey and myself are truly best friends on the pro tour. We play the same schedule, travel together, eat together and play doubles with each other. One of the reasons we have done so well on the doubles court this year is because we get along with each other so well. That really goes a long way.
But as you mentioned, we have played against each other three times this year. It is never easy playing a friend but at the same time we are competitors out there. We don't like playing each other, but at the same we realize that it will probably happen a lot in our careers.
georgiadogs.com: You're on the road right now, preparing to conclude the clay court season at the French Open. In your only previous appearance at Roland Garros (in 2008), you bowed out in the first round. What expectations, if any, do you place on yourself going into this year's event?
JI: I have a lot higher expectations for myself this year at the French Open. I have proved with my recent success that I can play really well on the red clay. I simply am just a better player than I was two years ago and anything less than making the second week this year I would consider a disappointment.
georgiadogs.com: According to a news article on JohnIsnerTennis.com, you have signed on with the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis (WTT), an organization co-founded by tennis great Billie Jean King. What is WTT and how did you decide to become involved?
JI: World Team Tennis has been going on for quite some time now. Billie Jean King founded it and it has enjoyed great success. The crowds are always great and the fans really get into it. It's more of a college tennis match than a pro tennis match which is something I really like about it. The Boston Lobsters decided to pick me up for a few matches this year and hopefully I can bring them some success.
georgiadogs.com: Currently, there are nine Americans ranked in the ATP Top 100, three (including yourself) ranked in the Top 25. How does this reflect the state of American tennis to you?
JI: A lot of people will say that the state of American tennis is down right now but I would disagree. American tennis fans were spoiled when guys like McEnroe, Connors, Sampras and Agassi were playing. In my opinion, the game is much deeper now than it was back then and, in that context, having nine players inside the top 100 is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
georgiadogs.com: ESPN.com's Bonnie Ford recently wrote an article in which you say your collegiate tennis career was "critical to (your) maturity." Expand upon that topic, please.
JI: Without a doubt playing four years of college tennis was the best avenue for me to get to the professional ranks. I am the only player in the top 50 to play four years of college tennis, but without that experience I would not be where I am right now. I simply was not good enough to turn pro out of high school and was able to fine-tune my game for four years under coach Manny Diaz. He was absolutely critical to my success today. Being able to spend the four years on court with him truly set me up for where I am today. Another thing is that I had the time of my life in college whereas some of my peers that decided to forego college and found it really hard to adjust to the pro game out of high school. Playing against 28-year-old men at 18 years old was something I did not want to do, so the decision to attend UGA was an easy one for me.
georgiadogs.com: You played at the top position on Georgia's 2006-07 national championship team, which, in going undefeated, outscored its opponents, 174-13. What moments from that magical run stand out to you now, three years later?
JI: My senior season was truly a memorable one. What stands out is simply how dominant we were as a team. I hate to sound cocky, but no one challenged us all year long. Our line-up was so strong and our sense of team unity was even stronger.
Not many folks have the opportunity to win a title in front of their own fans, so we weren't going to let that chance pass us by. No one in the country can pack a crowd in like Athens does for the NCAA Championships and the atmosphere at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex is always electric. Playing in front of 5,000 people and winning the title was unbelievable and I will never forget that.