Tennis

Isner's slump deepens in the desert

John Isner
John Isner just didn't have it going against Andy Roddick at Indian Wells.
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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif.

Even when he was down on his luck and in the midst of a slump, Andy Roddick never has gone on court thinking he had no chance to win a match. The man he vanquished 7-5, 6-2 in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open can't say the same.

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John Isner in is the midst of a deep slump and, after his uninspiring, routine loss to Roddick on Tuesday night, he said that when he walked on court he had no hope.

“I have zero confidence,” the 6-foot-9 Isner said. “I'm playing terribly. I can't feel my shots and I don't know why. I just didn't feel like I could win, and I can't explain it.”

That's a strange state of mind for the Wimbledon folk hero, given he showed he was a standout, never-say-die-competitor while defeating Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 70-68 in a record match at the All England Club last summer.

Since that time, however, he's displayed very little elite level tennis, falling to No. 33 in the rankings after reaching a career-high No. 18 last summer. He's only managed to win consecutive matches once this season. Last year, after Wimbledon, he had a fine tournament in Atlanta where he reached the final, but he had few positives the rest of the year except for a semifinal appearance in Beijing.

He cannot pinpoint why, but he admits he's confused as to what's happened to his big man's game — let alone what's happened to the positive mentality he showed while stunning Roddick in five sets at the 2009 U.S. Open.

“I don't think I've ever felt like that,” Roddick said. “If you're not confident, you certainly compete and fool yourself into thinking you have a chance. That's what we're supposed to do. I've always known that I can kind of serve my way through crappy matches if I have to. He should feel the same, I think.”

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Isner doesn't, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be able to take some solid steps in Miami next week, if he can find a way not to be so dependent on his first serve and his forehand. They're both very good, but they aren't going to win him majors unless he improves his backhand, his return and his transition game.

When Roddick came on tour, he was more or less in Isner's boat, primarily featuring a blazing serve and heavy forehand. A decade later, however, he's a much more well-rounded player. And while the rest of the tour has caught up with the pace of his forehand, and some guys can serve just as hard, you can't find many guys outside the top 10 who compete as well as he does, who are willing to make as many technical adjustments as he has just to gain a five percent improvement, and who are as driven as he is week in and week out.

Roddick was darn proud of 18-year-old American Ryan Harrison's brilliant effort in his 7-6(1), 4-6, 6-4 takedown of fellow phenom Milos Raonic of Canada. Roddick's spent a lot of time hitting with Harrison and trying to show him the ropes, as well as trying to make him a player's player — in Roddick's mind, that's a blue-collar competitor who doesn't ever take off his hard hat. There's no secret to being a top-flight player, but work ethic is certainly a necessary ingredient.

“You could find 20 people who have been successful across different sports, and I'm sure they got there in different ways,” said Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. “There is not a set way. You go through it. I was able to handle everything that came along with it. I think Ryan is a pretty smart kid. He listens. He wants to be a good player. We have seen a lot of guys that have come through here, especially in this country, they're trying to obtain a lifestyle as opposed to he wants to be a good tennis player, and there is a distinct difference there. He competes. That's something you can't teach. You can't teach someone to compete, to run after every ball, to hustle — and he does. He's passionate about it. That's what you need to start with.”

In the fourth round, Roddick will play France's Richard Gasquet, another talented guy whom he has managed to outwork. He should be able to take care of the Frenchman, but Gasquet is not a big catch for the 28-year-old Roddick. Those matches will come later in the week — beginning with if he faces Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, who hasn't lost a match this year and buried Ernests Gulbis 6-0, 6-1 on Tuesday.

Djokovic has to get past Davis Cup teammate and good friend Viktor Troicki first, but that's usually a fairly routine victory for Djokovic, so Roddick and the Serbian could meet for the eighth time on an outdoor hard court in the quarterfinals. Roddick owns a 5-3 edge on that surface over Djokovic, but the 23-year-old is much more secure player now and beat the American the last time they faced off in the ATP Finals in December.

While Roddick has had a pretty good year, going 16-2 and only taking losses to Robin Soderling in Brisbane and Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, he hasn't beaten anyone near the caliber of Djokovic. He was expected to edge Isner, and he's expected to work his way around Gasquet. After all, that comes with the territory when you've been the top-ranked American for the past eight years.

“You guys are very ho hum about [the win over Isner],” he said. “He wins, it's a better story for you. That's just the fact. It's tough playing it, because you know the pressure is on me when I play him. That's just the way it is. So, sure, it is uneasy, but I like it. One of the things that keep me going is trying to maintain my place.”

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