Forehands and fist bumps
Fresh from a record-breaking Wimbledon performance, John Isner returns to UGA to help train the next generation
A week and a half after the toughest match of his career, pro tennis player John Isner (M ’07) found himself facing a different kind of challenge. Returning to UGA’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex after winning the longest professional tennis match in history—beating Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 in the first round at Wimbledon—he faced a group of kids intimidated by his presence. At 6’9” Isner is always physically imposing, but these kids knew about The Match.
For a few days in June, Isner’s marathon match—which lasted 11 hours and five minutes over three days—hijacked international news. It was reported alongside updates on efforts to contain the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and results for the World Cup. It showed up in news tickers. By the time Isner won, he was a household name. He gave numerous interviews to outlets including CNN and “Good Morning America,” threw out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game and appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” to read a top 10 list: Thoughts That Went Through John Isner’s Mind During the 11-hour Tennis Match. So it’s understandable that the kids are a little nervous.
They get their first glimpse of Isner when he walks through the hall where they’re waiting to register for the John Isner Bulldog Tennis Camp. They stare quietly while he walks by, but then explode with “He’s so tall!” after he passes. They’re similarly reticent when they enter the UGA tennis archives room to take a photo with Isner. But he works to put them at ease, introducing himself as “John” and asking them questions about themselves. “Really?” he says to one kid who’s wearing a Georgia Tech T-shirt. “We’re going to convert you.” Chase Ray, 11, enters the room holding an oversize tennis ball—the kind that begs for an autograph.
Isner: “What’s up, dude?”
Isner: “How’s it going?”
Chase: “It’s good.”
Isner: “You want me to sign that?”
Chase: “Yes, please.”
Isner: “All right.”
Isner has a way of leaning down for each photo, reducing the height difference. He puts his arm around the kids’ shoulders and poses not only for the official camp portrait but also for extra photos taken by parents and sometimes with parents. And he gamely answers questions about The Match. Chase’s grandmother asks how he endured it.
“That’s why I work so hard,” Isner replies. “To be able to play 11 hours.”
The John Isner Bulldog Tennis Camp is the brainchild of Isner and Will Glenn (BBA ’02, MEd ’07), associate head coach for the UGA men’s tennis team. Open to boys of all skill levels aged 10 to 17, the camp offers serious instruction in a relaxed atmosphere—with the bonus of Isner’s presence.
“John’s spending a lot of time with the kids,” Glenn says. “Some athletes might not take it as seriously, but John has always said that if his name’s behind it he wants to make sure that it’s a good camp.”
The two met when Glenn became an assistant coach during Isner’s UGA career; their relationship retains elements of the coach/player dynamic, but they’re also just really good friends.
“I can honestly say without Will’s help while I was at Georgia… I would not be where I am right now,” Isner tells the group of 26 kids as camp officially begins. “Will knows what he’s doing, believe me, because he’s really brought me to the level that I’m at right now.”
Right now he’s on the ATP World Tour’s list of top 20 tennis players. On July 5, the first day of camp, Isner ranks 18th. That’s after just three short years on the pro tour, but Glenn isn’t surprised.
“There’s just something about him,” he says. “If he’s got the right path or plan, he’s going to be successful.”
Isner’s path to the pros has been somewhat unusual. As a junior player he chose to stay home in Greensboro, N.C., attending Walter Hines Page High School rather than a tennis academy. After head coach Manuel Diaz recruited him, Isner attended UGA for four years rather than turning pro early. As the number-one-ranked college player his junior year it would have been easy to go pro, but Isner wanted a second shot at an NCAA championship after losing in the finals. The next year he came back and led the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and the NCAA championship. It’s one of his favorite memories.
“I remember just relief and just being so ecstatic after winning that,” he says, looking from the window in the archives room out to the courts where it all happened. “To come back and win it, especially on a home court, made it really, really sweet.”
By Isner’s account he’s one of only two players in the top 100 who have attended four years of college. Promising junior players often skip college in order to maximize their number of years on the pro tour, but Isner believes he made the right choice.
“My four years here really set me up for what I’m doing right now in the pro ranks,” he says. “Without that, I wouldn’t be sitting here number 18 in the world. That’s for sure.”
The value of a college tennis career is part of his message to the kids this week. Four years at UGA allowed him to refine his game, and playing in a team dynamic prepared him for pressure situations, he tells them. And he credits his coaches—particularly Will Glenn—with helping him improve his mental game.
“He was huge, and still is huge, to my success today,” he says. “I email and call Will every other day really, even when I’m out on the road. Will really knows what it takes to build an elite player. That’s why I’m excited to be a part of this [camp] with him.”
Glenn and Diaz also were instrumental in helping Isner find Craig Boynton, his coach since early 2009. Under Boynton’s tutelage—and with some supplemental, unofficial coaching from Glenn and Diaz—Isner has had some of the best results of his career. Last summer he beat Andy Roddick, the highest-ranked American, at the U.S. Open. In January, he won his first ATP World Tour title at Auckland, New Zealand. And in June there was The Match, which broke 10 records (see pg. 35).
On one hand, Isner is proud of his accomplishment.
“I think that what makes it so neat is that it wasn’t a championship match. It was a first-round match. There were 64 first-round matches in that tournament, and we laid it all out on the line just to get to the second round.”
On the other hand, he’s ready to put The Match behind him.
“I don’t want that match I played a few weeks ago to be the lasting image of my career,” he says. “I want to be remembered for tournament wins and eventually a Grand Slam championship. That’s the ultimate goal, so that’s what I’ve got to keep working toward.”
“John, get in there!” Glenn says during a drill to practice volleys.
“I don’t have a partner,” Isner replies, and Glenn directs him to Christopher Morrell, 9.
Isner walks over to Christopher. “You’re my partner,” he says, and fist bumps him. Later he pairs with Noah Yates, 11.
“I’ll take the backhand side,” he says.
Isner hits a few shots then says “Your ball your ball your ball” to Noah, who volleys successfully.
It’s the first day of camp, and the kids are still a little shy. Many of them had never heard of John Isner when they registered for camp. Chase Bowman, 17, is one of the few who had. Blame his mother, who is “one of the biggest Isner fans in the world.”
“She couldn’t take me to the airport because she was watching the Wimbledon match,” he says. “I had to call my dad so he could come home from work to take me.”
“We laugh a little bit that John’s a star,” Glenn says. “You know he is, but it’s funny to see because it’s just John. But the kids are getting to know him as he talks to them a little bit more.”
During the five days of camp, the high temperature in Athens averaged 95 degrees. Carter West, 15, explains how they’ve been dealing with the heat: “Sunscreen. Sweating a lot. Drinking a lot.”
They’re also getting used to having Isner around. After several days with him both on the court and off—playing football—the kids are more comfortable.
“First I was really star struck, and then I realized he was just like a normal guy,” Noah says.
Noah and Louis Morrell, 10, played doubles against Isner and Christopher.
“We just treated him just like a kid, just another player,” Louis says. “Only he was extremely tall.”
Chase Eckler, 14, found his serve improving after Isner gave him pointers.
“His advice helped a lot. It really did. I’ve been having some of my best serves.”
On the last day of camp the kids are finishing their singles and doubles tournament as parents straggle in, climbing into the stands to watch as matches wrap up. On court 3, Corey Smith, 15, and Everett Reese, 14, are playing the 17-under singles championship match while Isner hits with UGA player and sophomore Will Reynolds on court 1.
Isner has also used this week to practice for the upcoming U.S. hard court season—a series of smaller tournaments that lead up to the U.S. Open—where he traditionally plays his best. At the moment he’s not entirely happy with his play, reproaching himself when he misses a shot. But when someone outside the court interrupts to ask for directions, he gives them without a hint of irritation.
“John’s a super nice guy. I think he’s just awesome,” Reynolds says. “Obviously he did a lot for Georgia while he was here. But even now I feel like what he’s doing for the school is amazing as well. You saw at Wimbledon, at the press conference, he’s got on the Georgia T-shirt—I mean, how cool is that?”
The temperature is creeping toward 100 degrees as Glenn announces camp awards and Isner hands out prizes—racquet strings (“Same kind I use,” Isner tells them) and T-shirts. Smiling parents descend from the stands to greet their kids, and Isner takes the court with Chase Ray, who won the 13-under singles title. While his grandparents watch, Chase returns a serve from Isner and wins the point by passing him with a volley.
Afterward, as he explains that he’s learned to hit the ball deep and be more consistent, Isner walks over.
“Chase, here you go,” he says, handing him an autographed copy of The New York Times article about his record-breaking match.
Chase thanks him and then reflects on how today is different than the first day of camp.
“Before the week I would call him John Isner, and now we just call him John,” he says. “I feel more like he’s kind of my friend and stuff.”
For Isner, camp has been a welcome respite from the grind of the pro tennis tour.
“This is really like my home away from home,” he says. “If I could choose any place I’d rather spend a week, it would be here.”
Next week he’ll travel to L.A. to accept an ESPY Award for Best Record-Breaking Performance, and then after that he’ll play four tournaments—including one in Atlanta, where he’ll reach the finals—before heading to New York for the U.S. Open. He’s still fielding interviews and inquiries about The Match, but for the moment he’s enjoying getting back to basics with the next generation of tennis fans.
“These kids, they just love to get out on the court,” he says. “Now it’s more of a job—it’s like I have to be out there. But these kids are just enjoying it so much, and it reminds me of me when I was their age.”
John Isner’s official website: http://www.johnisnertennis.com