Isner Takes Another Step to Become “That Guy” for U.S.

I don’t know if John Isner has ever walked on a tightrope before, but he might want to get some practice in soon.

It’s been a good couple of months for the big man from Greensboro, N.C. First he beat Roger Federer on clay in Switzerland as part of Isner’s efforts for the U.S. Davis Cup team and then he defeated World No.1 Novak Djokovic to reach the finals of Indian Wells. Isner’s wins last weekend over Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the France/USA Davis Cup tie in Monte-Carlo has now made Isner the talk of the tennis world. And with Isner only a hundred points or so away from passing Mardy Fish to become USA’s No. 1 player, the expectation is growing that Isner is going to do something big, maybe really big, this summer.

But in the same breath that gushed out praise for Isner’s efforts, many questioned his commitment to, at least for the moment, a packed summer schedule that includes Atlanta and Winston-Salem with many wondering if Isner will have anything left in the tank when he will likely play for the U.S. team in their Davis Cup tie against Spain in September after the U.S. Open. Isner, at least this week, alleviated some concern when he said yesterday he would not travel back to Monte-Carlo to play in the Masters event there after having just flown from there to Houston. But he’s still got people worried he will overplay heading into Paris.

So why all the obsessing over “Big John’s” travel itinerary? Probably because he’s having some of the biggest wins of his career in unexpected places, especially on clay where Americans players, and especially American men, are perceived to have an almost allergic inability to perform their best. Isner is now being talked about as a contender for Roland Garros next month. Is that because the tennis pundits believe he has a legitimate chance, (after all he did push “King” Nadal to five sets there last year) or is it more due to the same pundits and their need to talk about someone else except the “big four” who have dominated the headlines and the conversation on the men’s game for the last two years?

It’s likely a little bit of both and probably, especially for the summer hardcourt season, due to the growing reality many feel that Isner will be the No. 1 American heading into New York and all the pressure that brings. If you don’t believe it, just look at Mardy Fish’s results since he left Flushing Meadows. Many think that Isner actually could have a good chance to do something big in New York, unlike Fish, who despite reaching a personal best in getting inside the top ten, has likely taken his game as far as he can.

In a nutshell, the message being sent to Isner this week is, “We believe in you, just don’t blow it by doing something stupid.”

After spending some time in Florida to train, maybe it’s for the best Isner will be in Europe for a few months to give him time to adjust to his new status and he’ll need it, because one of the blessings and burdens of being even more popular is managing not only your own expectations but those of fans, sponsors, and events who all want a piece of your time, time that you could be spending on the practice courts or in the gym.

Is Isner ready to be “that guy?” Probably. We’ll just have to wait and see how he handles his first steps on the profitable if often precarious highwire act that is being the face of American men’s tennis.

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