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John Isner could take U.S. tennis to new heights

By Linda Robertson, McClatchy Newspapers –

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — John Isner, all 6 feet, 9 inches of him, embodies hope for American tennis.

Fresh off breakthrough victories over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Isner is primed to make an eye-opening run at the Sony Ericsson Open starting Friday in his first match against Nikolay Davydenko.

You can’t miss him. He’s taller than LeBron James. When he comes to the net, his wingspan is impenetrable. His 140-mph serve zooms downward like a meteor, unnerving opponents.

Isner ascended to No. 10 in the world this week and has a good chance to overtake No. 8 Mardy Fish as the top American by the time the tournament concludes.

Isner, who is closer to 6-10 than 6-9, is the tallest player ever in the top 10. Ivo Karlovic is the tallest player on tour, at 6-10.

Isner is 14-5 this year; last year he didn’t record his 14th win until July.

Isner is on his way up while Andy Roddick has fallen to No. 34. On the women’s side, Serena Williams, No. 11, and Venus Williams, No. 134, are coming back from injury and illness; the next highest ranked American is Christina McHale at No. 32.

The sport of tennis is desperate for a new American star. Isner could be the one.

He’s tall, handsome, articulate, with a dynamic game. And a college degree — a rarity in tennis. Isner is a late bloomer at age 26 because he chose to attend the University of Georgia.

“I always believed in myself,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily set a timetable for it. Now that I am inside the top 10, I want to stay and I want to go even higher. I really do believe I have that in me.”

In Indian Wells, Calif., last week, Isner’s semifinal victory over No. 1 Djokovic was the first by a U.S. player over a world No. 1 since James Blake beat Federer in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Last month, Isner upset No. 3 Federer during a Davis Cup match on Federer’s home court in Switzerland.

Djokovic has been nearly unbeatable, until he had no answer for the serve of Isner, the human catapult.

In the third-set tiebreaker against Djokovic, Isner got to his second match point with a 144-mph serve. He won with a 135-mph ace, his 20th of the match.

Djokovic said the angle, speed and accuracy of Isner’s serve was too much to handle. He admitted he snuck a look at the scoreboard speedometer.

“Sometimes just to admire, because I will never get there,” Djokovic said.

Isner led the ATP in aces in 2010 with 1,048. Last year he was second with 811 and led the tour in service games won (91 percent). That kind of serve piles up the points and puts enormous pressure on opponents.

“It looks easy at 6-10 but he’s put a lot of work into the rest of his game,” said Blake, a friend of Isner’s who trains with him and Fish at Saddlebrook Academy in Tampa. “You don’t get to top 10 with just a serve.

“I’m really proud of him. He’s still young in tennis years. Novak is playing better than anybody and on a lot of those points, there was nothing he could do. John just played too aggressive, too big.”

Isner is best known for his marathon victory over Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010. The record-setting match lasted 11 hours, 5 minutes over three days and the fifth set lasted 8 hours, 11 minutes. Isner served 113 aces before winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. There’s a plaque commemorating it on Court 18.

“It wore me out,” he said. “Our names will forever be etched in Wimbledon lore.”

Isner bounces the ball between his legs before serving. He’s not sure why; it’s become a habit, maybe from his dribbling days. Isner, a Greensboro, N.C., native, could be playing for his favorite team — North Carolina State — in the NCAA Tournament. He played basketball as well as tennis as a kid, idolized Karl Malone. At age 15, he had to choose one sport over the other. He was 6-2. He figured tennis was his best shot at earning a college scholarship.

“When I was 15, if someone had told me I would have been this tall, I would have stuck with basketball 100 percent,” said Isner, who reached his current height at 22. “I didn’t know I was going to keep growing and growing and growing.”

Isner is hoping to play mixed doubles at the London Olympics, where he’d like to partner with one of the Williams sisters.

“It’s fun to serve as hard as I can against the women,” he said, smiling. “If I ever get the chance to play for Olympic gold, I’m not going to take it easy.”

Wouldn’t he make the 6-1 Venus look short?

“Yeah,” he said. “I make a lot of people look short.”

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