Isner eyes top U.S. rank, maybe more

Andy Roddick may very well end up being the highest-ranked American male again when the season is concluded. But next year, the 28-year-old might have to step aside when John Isner, 25, takes giant strides into that place.

It took Roddick just four years to finish as his country’s top player, and he did one better by finishing as the world’s year-end No. 1 in 2003. Essentially, the No. 22-ranked Isner is on the same track. At the 2011 U.S. Open, Isner will have finished his fourth full year on tour, and by then, if he manages to stay healthy, the 6-foot-9 American should have been able to work the substantial kinks out of his game.

Plus, because he went to the University of Georgia for four years, he’ll have a lot more experience than Roddick did dealing with the rough and tumble international world of tennis if he has a similar type of success.

Isner has improved to the point where it’s also conceivable he’ll be the first man over 6-foot-6 to win a major. Juan Martin Del Potro, who is 6-foot-6, showed that a tall man with ample power but without Rafa Nadal-like foot speed could survive a major without being tripped up when he won the 2009 U.S. Open.

While Del Potro is much more consistent from the backcourt than Isner and has a far better backhand, Isner has improved by leaps and bounds since he played his first U.S. Open in 2007 and took a set off then-No. 1 Roger Federer. Without a doubt, Isner still has limitations in his game. He’ll never be quick nor fast, will always have problems scooping low volleys and has to find a way to add pop to his backhand, but his huge serve, forehand and improved net game give him three weapons that make him a legitimate contender.

Without question, if he doesn’t improve his return of serve (and that means learning to read his foes’ serves and getting the ball back in play, not just powering outright return winners), Isner will remain a second-tier player. But it’s a lot easier to gradually improve that facet of the game than it is to, say, develop a teeth-chattering serve that will rain down 113 aces in a match as Isner did in his record-breaking, 183-game victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon.

Isner has never shied away from stating he wants to be an elite player, which is a necessary part of the recipe of being a top competitor — owning a lot of self-belief and not being afraid to show it.

"Most likely, Andy has the best chance to be the highest-ranked American at the end of the year,” Isner said. “But I don’t feel any pressure. If I don’t get to the top 10, I’m only letting myself down, really. That’s the way I look at it."

As he showed at Wimbledon, Isner is a nails-tough competitor, and that’s hard to teach. Ability-wise, he isn’t much different or better than his close friend and doubles partner Sam Querrey, who is ranked a spot above him at No. 21, or even the veteran Mardy Fish, who is also ranked a few spots over him at No. 19.

But Isner appears to have the intangible that both are lacking at times — a huge heart and the absolute love of the battle, two qualities that have kept the 10th-ranked Roddick as his nation’s top player for so long.

In producer Nitin Varma’s well-constructed new player-biography series Tennisography on Tennis Channel, one of Isner’s childhood coaches reveals that one day, an 11-year-old John looked him straight in the eye and, without a dreamy expression, declared one day he’d play Wimbledon.

John’s two athletic older brothers made sure he wouldn’t grow up to be soft, and rumbles among the three boys inside their North Carolina home weren’t unusual. John laughingly recalls having his brothers chain him by the neck with a bicycle lock. But he took it in stride and notes his tight family bond made him a stronger and well-rounded person.

“You’ll never meet a person who doesn’t like John, because that person doesn’t exist,” his brother Jordan said.

This season, Isner has won Auckland and reached the finals of Memphis, Belgrade and Atlanta. Had he not torn apart his ankle in Cincinnati, he likely would have been able to put on a much better showing at the U.S. Open than losing to eventual semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny in the third round.

His biggest career win still is his five-set upset of Roddick in the third round of the 2009 U.S. Open, but his hard-fought, four-set win over Gael Monfils in the third round at the 2010 Australian Open wasn’t too shabby either.

But next year, he needs to start turning around his losses to the elite players like he suffered to Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych in 2010.

This season isn’t over yet, and he could still make some noise. He has almost no points to defend for the rest of the year, and if he can put up big results at Beijing (where he’s playing this week and is scheduled to face Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round on Wednesday) and the Masters Series tournaments at Shanghai and Paris, he has an outside shot of qualifying for the year-end ATP World Finals in London.

In some ways, he has to look at the rest of 2010 as a way to develop himself into a truly feared player in 2011. His conditioning is already terrific, but he could locate his second serve better, improve the range with his forehand, keep moving ahead with his transition game and really grow to love the net, which is going to be the key for him if he ever hopes to win a major.

He has to be in charge of every match, and if he is, in 2011 he’ll be leading the U.S. tennis troops.

“I’ve come a long, long way,” he said at Wimbledon. “I didn’t think about going pro until my junior year in college. I didn’t know what to expect. I told myself if I ever got to the top 100 at any point in my career, that would be an accomplishment. But now I’m top 20, and I can go further and get higher than that.”