Panthers' Smith, tennis' Isner become buddies

Published Jun. 2, 2010 9:21 p.m. ET

They play different sports, have contrasting backgrounds and one is a foot taller than the other.

Yet it took just a chance seating assignment on a flight to Australia to forge a friendship between Carolina receiver Steve Smith and tennis' John Isner.

Five months after Smith cheered on Isner's surprising run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, and a week after Isner was eliminated in the third round of the French Open, the hard-serving Isner was back in his home state on Wednesday watching the fiery Smith work out with his favorite team, the Panthers.

``Never seen a practice like this up close at the pro level,'' Isner said, smiling.

Few Panthers players or coaches had been so close to a tennis player, either, especially one 6-foot-9.

``I don't know that there are many that tall,'' coach John Fox said.

The scene was a bit unusual, and certainly spiced up a normally mundane offseason workout at Bank of America Stadium.


Smith is a 5-foot-9, four-time Pro Bowl pick who grew up in a rough part of Los Angeles. The towering Isner is a Greensboro, N.C., native, six years younger than Smith and just recently started to make noise in majors.

Look closer, however, and there are similarities. Smith was supposed to be too small to play football and Isner too tall for tennis. Both have used their intense drive and athleticism to overcome those obstacles and become elite athletes.

``I respect all athletes and all the sports they do. To get to that level is hard in whatever you do,'' the 31-year-old Smith said. ``Just because he doesn't play football as far as professionally doesn't mean I have less respect or I don't think he's less of an athlete.

``I think how tall he is and how he moves, he'd be a pretty decent tight end, in my opinion.''

The wiry Isner wasn't so sure.

``With 40 more pounds I could be a tight end,'' Isner said, laughing.

Smith likes many sports. He's coached his kids' soccer teams, watched professional matches in Europe, and was the guest of the Mexican national team when it played an exhibition in Charlotte in March.

Smith, who said he plays a little tennis, was on his way to Melbourne to watch the Australian Open in January when his seat on the plane happened to be next to Isner's agent. He recognized Smith, knew Isner was a Panthers fan, and arranged for them to meet.

``We met at the players' lounge at the tournament,'' Isner said. ``I got him a credential to get him through all the security and whatnot. We've just hit it off ever since.''

Smith watched Isner, who had just won his first ATP tournament in Auckland, reach the fourth round in Melbourne by beating Gael Monfils. Isner was also getting attention for his new buddy in the stands.

``When I had some matches on TV in Australia they'd show him on TV and all my friends would text me,'' Isner said. ``Obviously, the ones home back in Greensboro were jealous. It's cool. I'm glad I met him. He invited me to come down here and I have a few days off.''

Isner had just returned to the U.S. after falling to Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 at Roland Garros on Friday. He watched the final hour of Carolina's workout, then had a long chat with Smith on the sideline as the special teams units ran drills.

``Just looking at his feet with the flip-flops on, I don't think he'd be a good wide receiver,'' Smith cracked to Isner.

But Isner, who said he's been a Panthers fan since the team was formed in 1995 when he was 10, impressed Smith with his football knowledge.

``When we were in Australia he was asking me all kinds of questions about football,'' Smith said. ``He asked some questions I didn't even think he knew about. He's a hometown boy so he's very aware.''

Smith is also aware of Isner's rise up the ATP rankings to a career-high 19th, and plans to go to London later this month to watch him at Wimbledon.

Maybe Smith, who has a friend who is a tennis instructor, could take a crash course and be Isner's hitting partner?

``That's something that if it would happen,'' Smith said, ``we'd probably have to have a pact that nobody speaks about it.''