Despite Miami loss, Isner still standing tall for U.S. men's tennis

A generation of gifted young players appears poised to take over leadership of American men’s tennis, but its members are still bumping up against an outsized obstacle: John Isner, the 6’10” ace machine who has been the standard bearer for the past decade.

Isner, who lost his fourth-round match to Roberto Bautista Agut at the Miami Open on Tuesday in heartbreaking fashion—6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7), despite holding a match point—remains the highest-ranked U.S. men’s player, at No. 28. For now. The soon-to-be 36-year-old will soon be staring up at Taylor Fritz, the 23-year-old who will ascend to the top spot unless fellow 23-year-old American Frances Tiafoe wins Miami.

The trio of quality players who loosely comprise Isner’s generation—the others are Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson—know that it’s time to pass the generational baton. All are over 30, and none of them is within 15 ranking places of his career high, nor likely to approach it again before time runs out.

“The new wave is here and they are playing well,” Querrey told me. “Taylor [currently ranked No. 32], Frances [No. 58], Reilly [Opelka; 23 and No. 41] and Tommy [Paul; 23 and No. 53] make a really good group of guys. They hit the ball a ton and have a lot of upside. I think we’re gonna see a couple of them make some runs at majors and maybe even win a Slam.”

The young go-getters are accustomed to, and grateful for, the support of their veteran peers. Referring to the older generation, Fritz told me, “Those guys played a really big part in my career. I’ve known them all and practiced with them since I was a nervous 16 year old. They always were very friendly and accepting of us even though they were the guys we used to watch on TV.”

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Querrey’s praise for the younger generation is leavened with a warning Isner has issued on more than one occasion. After defeating the 20-year-old 11th seed, Felix Auger-Aliasimme, in the third round, Isner told me that while the young Americans have “extremely bright futures,” they have to keep their eyes on the prize. The bar for success has been set very high by the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, among others poised to assume control of the tour once Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal cede their positions.

“Our young guys are pretty close,” Isner says, “But they have a lot of work to do. The onus is on them to keep doing the right things.”

Isner and company never had to deal with the advantages, or pitfalls, that accompany strong identification as a “generation.” Age differences (there is a spread of nearly five years between Isner and 31-year old Johnson), and diverse developmental paths ensured that. Fritz pointed out that all four members of his immediate cohort are the same age.

With the exception of Tiafoe, the young stars all trained and lived at the USTA training center in Orlando, Fla. as they developed tour-worthy games.

“It’s tough to beat me, Reilly, and Tommy when it comes to closeness,” Fritz says. “We spent months living together in dorms at USTA. It’s a small, confined space, all you can do there is play tennis and just kill time.”

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The older players never experienced that generational vibe—at least not at the beginning. But they developed it over time.

“It was a little bit different for us,” Querrey says. “I was on the tour first. Then John came into the picture. (Isner played collegiate tennis for four years for the University of Georgia.) So there were two of us. Then four years later, Stevie came in, and even later Jack [Sock, who is still under 30 but ranked outside the Top 200]. We didn’t move ahead together like these young guys today, but over time we became extremely close. We were all grooms at each others’ weddings.”

Isner and company also played in the long, deep shadows cast by the Big Three. Isner is the only player outside that trio to finish in the Top 20 for 10 consecutive years, an achievement that Opelka described as, “Unbelievable, an unreal accomplishment, because John played in the toughest era in tennis.”

Ranked as high as No. 8, in 2016, Isner was a principal in the longest match in tennis history. His 11-hour 2010 Wimbledon marathon with Nicolas Mahut finally ended with Isner claiming the fifth set, 70-68. He was also a party to the second longest match at Wimbledon, a 26-24 in-the-fifth loss to Kevin Anderson in the 2018 semifinals. That was the match that finally triggered the traditional All England Club’s embrace of a fifth-set tiebreaker.

Querrey’s career-high ranking was No. 11, in 2018, and he’s won 10 tour-level titles in 19 finals. Another player who popped aces like a Pez dispenser, Querrey also played some memorable matches at Wimbledon, where he upset Novak Djokovic en route to the 2017 semifinals.

“Wimbledon was my best tournament, and my favorite,” Querrey says. “If you asked me 10 years ago if I would make a couple of quarterfinals and a semi there, I would have said, ‘realistically, no.’”

Isner hosts quiz with Fritz, Tiafoe, Opelka and Paul:

Johnson is the youngest in the group, as well as the least fortunate. He made steady progress and hit a career high of No. 21 in 2016, the year he earned an Olympic bronze medal in doubles with Sock. Just months later, in May 2017, Johnson unexpectedly lost his father and lifelong coach, also named Steve. Devastated, Johnson has struggled in the ensuing years, often shuttling up and down from the ATP Challenger Tour. But he’s now ranked a respectable No. 87 and still young enough to make another push.

Veteran players often launch late-career surges once the pressure faced by fit players in their prime declines. They also like to take a few final laps, just to smell the roses. 

“I’d love to stay relevant, stay in Top 100, be in main draws of Grand Slams,” Querrey says, “I don’t think I can just get it going again and sneak back into Top 15, but I feel like I still have a big upside. I may still have a few good runs and beat some of those top guys.”

The same holds true for Isner, as he has been demonstrating in Miami. And, with weapons like the serve Isner and Querrey are toting around, nothing can be ruled out. But the pandemic is a wild card factor in this equation. The bubbles and lockdowns and protocols affect all players, but it might be toughest on the older pros—especially those with families, or fitness issues.

“It’s been tougher on us older guys than on the young ones,” Isner says. “Over the last year, I’ve taken a lot of time off. My racquet has been in the closet a lot of the time. That’s very weird for a tennis player like me, who literally has had the same exact schedule for the last 12 years.”

Isner skipped the Australian Open this year because he didn’t want to be separated from his family for such a long period. He also feared that enduring full lockdown would be more dangerous fitness-wise due to his physique. He also was disappointed by the news that Wimbledon (working with local health officials) plans to make it compulsory for all players to stay in bubble hotels in central London, ruling out the popular habit of renting private housing.

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“It’s 100 percent tougher for older players,” Querrey says, adding that wives, especially with children, have no desire to sit in hotel rooms for weeks on end. “You don’t really have a chance to bring your family anymore.”

Fritz is among those who disputes the claims of the older players.

“Guys my age, we missed out on eight months of our prime,” he says. “I think you can make an argument about how hard it’s been for every single age group, and at every level in the game.”

That’s probably true. But Querrey, who has said that he has not decided when to call it quits, adds: “I knew in my head last year that I probably had three more French Opens ahead of me, maybe three more Wimbledons. I lost one (Wimbledon) to the pandemic, so now I have two left. Taylor, Reilly and the others will play Wimbleodn a dozen more times, so it’s just not that big a deal for them.”

Fritz believes that the modified rankings have offered the older players a measure of extra protection because of the way it has allowed points earned in 2019 to remain in play. That has diminished the punitive aspect of playing far fewer events for players with family considerations.

“It sucks that this is how it’s coming to an end for them,” he acknowledged.

Not so fast, though; the older generation still has a few aces up its sleeve.

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