John Isner surprised many when won his first ever clay court title in Houston last week, including the big man himself who entered the event in an early season slump. But after beating two top 20 players, Juan Monaco and Nicolas Almagro, who are known for their skills on the dirt, Isner finds his chances during the European clay swing being talked up once again.
Seeing an American man do well on clay continues to perplex many avid tennis watchers, but it really shouldn’t. Some of that has to do with an ingrained perception that U.S. players and their games are better suited to faster surfaces. While some might still remember Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Jim Courier holding up the trophy at Roland Garros years ago, most choose instead to dwell on Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick and their lack of significant results in Paris. American men, like Isner today, are expected to have big serves and big forehands that pay dividends for them on surfaces like grass and cement – not red clay.
Except it doesn’t or at least not for the lanky North Carolinian of late. Wimbledon, with its slower grass courts of today rather than the super slick greens that Sampras ruled over, doesn’t really reward big servers like Isner with cheap point after cheap point anymore. Also, the low bounces do not suit the super tall Isner and his game as evidenced by his inability to go further than the second round at the All-England Club.
But on clay, Isner actually goes for bigger serves and gets more out of them. His kick serves especially climb to greater heights when they connect with the clay, jarring away from his opponent at obtuse angles. Clay also gives Isner, not the speediest of players out there, more time to stay in rallies before setting himself up for his favorite forehand side. His weak return game is still problematic no matter what surface he plays on, but it bears noting that Isner appears more confident on clay than anywhere, especially since he has had some of the best results of his career on it.
“I’ve always known I could play well on clay,” Isner told the media last week in Houston. That is certainly true considering he reached the doubles finals and was a singles semifinalist at a national clay court tournament as a junior. But while he may have had success as a youth, Isner’s confidence on clay as a pro didn’t really take off until he pushed Nadal to five sets in Paris back in 2011 and then beat Federer in Davis Cup last year as part of the Switzerland/U.S. tie.
That defeat of Federer prompted many to think Isner would have a memorable clay court season. Instead, he had mediocre results throughout the spring that ended when he lost a marathon second round match at Roland Garros to France’s Paul Henri-Mathieu 18-16 in the fifth set.
Clay may boost Isner’s game, but what truly fuels him is pure confidence that only comes from winning on a regular basis. Isner is known for having roller coaster stretches of multiple victories followed by long periods of horrible losses as he went through at the start of this season. But after coming into Houston at something of a low ebb, Isner left in soaring spirits and wasn’t afraid to let everyone know it.
“I know I can do damage on clay,” Isner said. “I know no one wants to play me on clay. One time I took Rafa to five sets at the French Open. I really believe I can beat anyone on this surface. I’ll take that into Monte Carlo on Tuesday.”
The former U.S No. 1 certainly was flying high in the first set against Ernests Gulbis on Monday at Monte Carlo before his body, probably tired from a long week and one transatlantic flight too many, gave out on Isner who lost in three sets. But if Isner can rest up and keep his confidence bottled up until he returns to the continent later in May, then he may just make good on his claims made in Houston.
Isner may not be the top U.S. man right now according to the rankings, but it is very clear that he is the only one among the Americans in the post-Roddick era that has the game to challenge and beat the ATP’s elite. If Isner can maintain a tight grip on his confidence, that is as important to him as his big serve, while relishing and not dreading his time spent in Europe as he has done in the past, then we just might see him actually slide his way back closer to the top ten soon enough.
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