Isner searching for answers

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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.



Remember those happy days when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang were fixtures in the world’s top 10? Four Americans who won the bulk of the 22 Grand Slam singles titles claimed by US players between 1993 and 2003. It was Andy Roddick, of course, who won that last title at the US Open nine years ago. Since then, nothing.

And now we are arriving at the end of a year which will see the ATP rankings posted with no American in the top 10 for the first time since the computerized ranking system was established in 1973.

John Isner had one last chance to do something about that here at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris. Had he managed to win the tournament, he would probably have sneaked into 10th spot above Frenchman Richard Gasquet, who lost to Kevin Anderson in the second round. But Isner went out 6-4, 7-6 at the hands of Michael Llodra and then came and spoke to me about it in the players’ lounge afterward.

I didn’t start telling him how he had created an unwanted piece of American tennis history by losing that match. You don’t kick a man when he is down, especially not one who stands 6-foot-10. And he looked so sad it would have been heartless. So I asked him about how his year had gone.

“Tough to talk about it right now after a loss,” he said. “I would say that, overall, my year should have been better. I had two good stretches, at the beginning of the year with the two Davis Cup ties and getting to the final of Indian Wells and then again in the US during the summer when I won Newport and Winston Salem. But I wasn’t consistent. I wasn’t able to sustain the good form and that’s on me to do something about.”

Isner is obviously searching for answers and is perplexed by his inability to maintain standards that he is clearly able to reach. “I was consistent in 2010 but not last year and not this,” he said. “I’m not sure why.”

I suggested he found the travelling difficult after hearing him complain about how he was finding a four-week stretch in Rome, Nice and Paris in the spring difficult to handle. But he rejected this.

“The travel is not the problem,” said the 27-year-old, who went against the grain and spent his full four years graduating from the University of Georgia – the only top tennis player in recent memory to have spent that long in college. “Obviously I feel more comfortable at home but we are lucky to get the opportunity to see great places. Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world.”

Jim Courier, Isner’s Davis Cup captain, said a few weeks ago that many American players did not schedule themselves wisely during the long, grueling 11-month season.

“Scheduling is very important,” Isner admitted. “The top guys like Roger Federer scheduled themselves best. I overscheduled myself this summer. I made seven trips to Europe this year what with Davis Cup and the Olympics. That’s too much.”

Not for the first time this year, Isner was self-critical of his performance against Llodra. “He’s a good player indoors but I had forehands I should have put away. I’m not going for the ball. I’m not confident.”

There is no explanation for that. A player who beat Federer on clay in Davis Cup in Switzerland, Novak Djokovic in the semifinal at Indian Wells and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga back on European clay in the Davis Cup against France obviously has the weapons and the ability to upset the best players in the world. But confidence is a fragile, fleeting thing and it seems to flutter around up there in Isner’s head, deserting him at crucial moments.

He will head home now and, in the coming weeks, reflect on how to approach 2013 with his coach Craig Boynton. “But I need to clear my head first,” he said. “Too soon to think about that now. It’s been a long year.”

There is no reason why a fit and focused Isner cannot get back to the No. 9 spot he held in the rankings back in April and, indeed, go higher. He may even get some support from the rejuvenated Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison, who has the potential to do great things as America searches for someone to re-establish a presence in the world’s top 10.

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