Tennis: Marathon man hungers for big titles

By Steve Deane

American popular culture is pretty good at ranking sporting achievement. A great play or notable achievement will probably end up on an ESPN highlights reel. A brilliant career, on the other hand, might eventually earn a guest appearance on The Simpsons.

It says plenty about John Isner's achievements to date that his lone ATP title, last January in Auckland, created barely a ripple in the US.

The giant American's second-round exit at Wimbledon, by comparison, earned him an appearance on Letterman, the chance to throw the first pitch at a baseball game at Yankee Stadium and a gong at the Espys. In terms of pop-culture kudos, that's right up there.

Of course, as anyone with even a vague interest in sports knows, Isner's Wimbledon was no routine affair.

For those who were in a coma during the three days in June that Isner took to beat Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the longest match in history, here are a few salient facts: Isner's 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 first-round win took 11hrs and 5mins to complete; the final set alone lasted over eight hours; the match set records for most aces: 216 (Isner 113, Mahut 103), most points: 980 (Mahut 502, Isner 478); most winners: 490 (Isner 246, Mahut 244) and most consecutive service holds (84 each).

For a mid-level player more known for his freakish size than any kind of freakish achievement, the match spelled instant global fame. The affable North Carolina native was engulfed in a media storm.

"For a few months after that match, things were really hectic for me," he says. "It was something that I didn't anticipate happening but I wouldn't change it for the world. I'm glad I was a part of that match. To be able to play that match with Nicolas was pretty special."

Speaking from his Florida home during the couple of weeks in December that qualify as the tennis off-season, Isner says life has returned to normal. The only difference now is that he is more often recognised in public. At 206cm, it's not like he's hard to spot.

"I haven't changed as a person," he says.

His actions appear to back up those words. After winning in Auckland, he announced he would donate a good chunk of his winner's cheque to the Red Cross for Haiti earthquake-relief work.

At the end of the season, he teamed with fellow American Sam Querrey to host a charity event in California. Isner's share of the US$40,000 ($52,800) raised went to the cancer centre that treated his mother.

Querrey, the beaten finalist in Auckland in 2009, is Isner's best mate on tour. But had it not been for Querrey, a season that saw Isner - a qualifier in Auckland just two years ago - surge into the world's top 20 could have been a whole lot better.

Twice Querrey foiled Isner's attempts to add to his breakthrough Auckland title, beating him in finals at Memphis and Belgrade.

Isner appeared to have both matches in hand only for the steely resolve he displayed at Wimbledon and in Auckland to desert him.

"Those were bitter pills to swallow but, hopefully, I am going to be in a lot more finals in 2011 and I'd like to get another crack at him," Isner says.

"It is alway tough playing against friends. The other final I lost was against Marty Fish [in Atlanta].

"You want to play in finals, but you don't necessarily want to play your friend and that happened three times this year to me. It is tough for both players and I didn't play as well I would have liked to."

Although he added a good-sized fortune of just over US$1 million in seasonal prizemoney to go with his global fame, Isner paid a high price for his Wimbledon exploits. Initially, he thought he had scrubbed up okay, making the final in Atlanta the next week, but the rigours of that marathon match soon caught up with him and he withdrew from a lucrative Masters Series event.

"It wrecked me. After about a week I felt fine. Two weeks after that I hit a wall and I was just completely out of energy," he said.

"I knew I needed to rest because if I didn't rest I was just going to fall down."

Auckland has been kind to Isner. Having made the quarterfinals as a qualifier in 2009 and then won the tournament in 2010, he boasts a remarkable 10-1 record at the Heineken Open.

While some players baulk at the idea of basing themselves outside Australia in the week before Melbourne, Isner loves coming here.

"Winning Auckland was huge for me," he says.

"A lot of people say that if you do well in Auckland it is a tough travel to Melbourne and you are not really well prepared. But I went to Melbourne and made the round of 16 and eventually lost to Andy Murray. He made the final, he was playing so well. He was just better than me. So Auckland definitely prepared me well for the Australian Open and that is one of the main reasons I am playing it again.

"I don't know what it is about the place. We do a lot of travel in Europe and Asia but, for me, going Downunder is one of my favourite times of the year. Auckland is one of my favourite - if not my favourite tournament - on the calendar, so I am really, really looking forward to it."

The biggest question for Isner now is whether that match, however noteworthy, will ultimately define his career?

"It could, but it is up to me to make that not the case. I want to be remembered as a guy who won a lot of tournaments and won a lot of big tournaments.

"Although I am 25, I am still pretty new to the pro tour and I am going to continue getting better. Everything is ahead of me. I expect to make a lot of noise in the really big tournaments. The ultimate goal is to win a Grand Slam and that is something I do think I am capable of.

"If I can play well in the big tournaments then, hopefully, I can put that Wimbledon match behind me and be remembered as a great champion."

- NZ Herald

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