NEWPORT, R.I. — The majority of the athletes preparing for the London 2012 Olympic Games has spent countless days training specifically for the Games and countless nights dreaming about them. But for tennis player John Isner, the upcoming trip to London came as more of a surprise.
He never could have imagined that he would be America’s highest-ranked men’s tennis player heading into these Olympic Games.
The first-time Olympian was a little-known player on the ATP Tour before he embarked on his historic marathon match with France's Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. Isner's 11-hour, 5-minute victory (70-68 in the fifth set) against Mahut was the longest match in the sport’s history.
“Honestly, growing up it wasn’t a dream of mine to play in the Olympics, I never imagined it would be possible,” said Isner, 27, after winning North America’s only professional grass court tournament — the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships — in Newport, R.I., earlier this month. “Same thing with Davis Cup. Just to play for your country is such an honor.
“This Olympics is going to have a team feel to it as well, which is similar to college, similar to Davis Cup. I’ve played my best tennis this year in Davis Cup so hopefully I can pull that out in the Olympics.”
While the 6-foot-9-inch Isner, who turned pro in 2007 after a stellar career at the University of Georgia, doesn’t have to worry about meeting Mahut in the Olympics because the Frenchman is not representing his country there, a fresh set of fans and media pool almost certainly will dredge up the marathon match — especially since the All England Club will serve as the Olympic tennis venue from July 28 to Aug. 5.
“We’re always on opposite sides of the draw whether it’s clay or hard but that’s something we both have to deal with, especially at Wimbledon, playing each other two years in a row, three years in a row, you hear it a lot of the same questions,” Isner said. “It wears on us a little bit but we both have to deal with it.”
The 2010 Wimbledon match against Mahut sent both players into a nearly year-long funk.
Isner finally had his breakthrough when he beat Mahut in Wimbledon last year just before beating him again en route to winning the Hall of Fame Championships as the 46th-ranked player in the world.
Isner credits the victory in Newport with propelling him to a sizzling summer. Isner’s summer ended with a quarterfinal loss to Andy Murray in the U.S. Open —which helped leapfrog him past fellow Americans Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick and Sam Querrey in the rankings.
But the world No. 11-ranked player who reached a career-best No. 9 ranking in mid-April is currently trying to fight his way out of a mini funk that started during this year’s clay court season and peaked during a first-round loss at Wimbledon last month to Alejandro Falla of Colombia, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5.
The loss was Isner’s third straight loss in a five setter at a Grand Slam. Isner said he hopes his victory in Newport will once again spark his summer season.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for,” he said before beating former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the finals of the Hall of Fame tournament on July 15. “I had a very good year so far, a lot better than I had in 2011 but ever since the clay court season and I choked at Wimbledon things just didn’t go my way. But I put that behind me or I feel like I have put that behind me. I normally play my best in the States and I feel like I’m most comfortable here.
“It’s something I have to work on. I wish I could play a little better in Europe. It’s something I’m working on but yeah this tournament is very important.”
Isner also said he’s glad he doesn’t have to wait a full year to redeem himself at the All England Club.
“Now that it’s upon us and upon me it’s going to be a lot of fun to go there and do my best,” he said of the Olympic Games. “If I can play well and play the right way I can do some damage there in singles and in doubles. Playing doubles with Andy (Roddick), having big serves like we have, it certainly doesn’t hurt us.”
There is also speculation that Roddick will play mixed doubles with reigning Wimbledon champion Serena Williams. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Venus Williams will join her sister on the Olympic squad along with Christina McHale and Varvara Lepchenko. The world’s No. 1 doubles team, Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber, will represent the United States as well.
The 2008 bronze medal doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan will play doubles on the men’s side while youngsters Ryan Harrison, 20, and Donald Young, 22, will round out the men’s squad, making their Olympic debuts.
There has been a lot of talk about the weakness of the American men in Grand Slam tournaments — the last U.S. man to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. The last American man to win the Olympic gold medal in men’s singles was Andre Agassi in 1996. But Roddick, for one, is excited about the U.S. men’s potential at the Games.
“I think it's healthy,” Roddick said. “We had two in the top 10 last year. Certainly was good with Brian Baker and Isner playing well earlier this year. The question is always a tough one for me to answer because we deal in the context of a worldwide talent pool, which isn't the case with a lot of sports that the U.S. focuses on. It's going to take some great tennis to crack those top three. They're three of the best we've ever seen, and they're certainly playing to it.
“It depends what you mean by 'improve the game.' As far as viewership, USTA memberships, sales of products, tennis is very, very healthy. It's as healthy as it's been for a long time. But I think success at any pro tournament will obviously garner more attention. Obviously, the Olympics, you don't have to be a tennis fan to pick a side in the Olympics. I think we're all very motivated and it should be a lot of fun.”
Among the top contenders in men’s singles are Roger Federer, who just won his seventh Wimbledon title, and Novak Djokovic, the 2011 Wimbledon champion. Rafael Nadal, the 2008 Olympic champion, withdrew from the London competition earlier today with knee tendinitis.
And then there is Isner, who is fresh off a victory on grass. The key part of that statement is that he recorded a win.
“I don’t care what the surface is,” Isner said. “I don’t care if you are playing on mud, a win is a win and that is what I did.”
But a win on the Wimbledon grass would be even sweeter.