There are a solid, albeit small, contingent of us who have believed in Isner’s ability to become a top player from the first time we saw him play. Those of us who thought that we could see the diamond in the rough. That behind the hang-dog demeanor, the weak backhand, the nonexistent return of serve, the volleys dumped in the net, the cringe-worthy missed overheads (I could go on, but you get the point) was something special. Even in his worst moments, there were just enough glimpses of brilliance (a volley with a wicked angle, a superbly hit forehand that painted the lines, a backhand return-of-serve winner, a rock-solid mentality in a tough tiebreak) that made you believe that just maybe he could become more than just a huge serve.
But that would take work. A lot of work. He had to build upon his strengths and add weapons to his arsenal. Instead of purely relying on the power his serve, he developed a formidable forehand. He took advantage of his immense wingspan and acquired a solid net game. He worked on his weaknesses, improving the backhand and return of serve, so that he could make inroads on his opponents serve.
Once the tools were more or less in place, he could fully put into action a game plan that maximized his strengths and mitigated his weaknesses. He could be aggressive on his serve, go for forehand winners, get into the net, and keep the points short. Whether he won or lost a point, it would be on his terms.
In the past, Isner would allow a player with a superior return game to boss him around. He would get into long ralleys that he could not win, so he would go for more on his serve, make more errors, and compensate for the errors by going for even more. Not surprisingly, he would lose this kind of match to a Murray, a Federer, or a Djokovic without being able to put up much of a fight not just because of the talent on the other side of the net, but because he was playing on their terms, not his own.
In order to beat the top players, he had to play the same way no matter who was on the other side of the net. Win or lose, screaming winner or facepalm-worthy error, the match had to be on his racquet. Aggressive play, short points, blazing serve, no rhythm. That had to be the plan.
Of course, it’s one thing to have a plan and quite another to put that plan in effect. As we have seen in the past year, for every tournament won (Newport, Winston Salem) there was a loss to a lesser player (no offense, Bobby Reynolds). The plan was there, but his success in implementing it was far from consistent.
Until Davis Cup last month. Maybe it was the honor of playing for his country. Maybe it was the support of Captain Courier and the rest of team USA. Maybe it was because the pressure was off because of Mardy Fish’s win over Wawrinka the match before his. Whatever it was, he took the court against Roger Federer in front of Fed’s home crowd, and he put his plan into effect. He did not let Fed dictate play. He asserted his game and not only won, but won like a player who truly believed that he should win. The game plan was executed to perfection.
Isner put that very same plan into effect in his win over Djokovic in Indian Wells. Novak had no opportunity to develop a rhythm and work his way into Isner’s game (and head). Instead, he was the one who became frustrated, losing concentration and making costly errors. Isner stayed steady, focused on his game, and ultimately won it on his terms.
In tomorrow’s final, John will have to play another great player, either Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. And although he may not win that match, what I can promise you is that he will play aggressively, he will focus on his strengths, and he will believe that he can win. Personally, I can’t think of a better plan for a top player.
(Picture via Getty Images)