HIGHLIGHTS: Isner defeats two-time champion Murray at Wimbledon

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John Isner stepped up to the service notch on No. 2 Court at Wimbledon a few weeks ago, looked across the net at Jannik Sinner, his third-round opponent, then lowered his head. He performed his ritual, ball-bouncing serve preparations, then tossed the ball very high into the air—a requirement for someone 6’10”— and promptly cracked the most significant of the 13,750 aces he has rained down on fearful opponents throughout his 15-year as a pro.

The ace in question was No. 13,729, surpassing the record held by that other very big man, the 37-year old and currently inactive, 6’11” Ivo Karlovic.

“I knew I would kind of eventually track him down,” Isner said a day earlier. “It’s actually pretty cool. It's not going to put me in the Hall of Fame or anything like that, because that's not me. But I will be the all-time [ace] leader.

“I’ll keep playing, keep adding to my total. I don't know if that record will get broken. I could be up there for a long time. It’s actually really cool.”


The most tantalizing element in that quote was Isner’s mention of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He claimed that he hasn’t earned a place among the titans of tennis. I beg to differ.

Isner is currently at (if not in) the ITHOF, preparing to compete in the ATP 250 tournament that is part of Enshrinement Week at the Newport (R.I.) Casino. He won’t be eligible for enshrinement for some time yet, but he fleshed out his own case against his enshrinement in a phone conversation.

“I do not think I’m a Hall of Famer by any stretch of the imagination,” he told me. “That’s just how I feel. I mean, I’ve had a pretty good career, but it’s not Hall worthy in my estimation.”

Isner believes that a player needs to hit certain benchmarks to be inducted. Win a Grand Slam title. Hit No. 1 in the rankings. Log at least 500 wins (unless your career was unexpectedly cut short). Isner noted the spirited debate about the eligibility of Andy Roddick (who eventually got in) and added, “Andy had an unbelievable career, way better than mine. But he also didn’t have one comparable to some of those other people in the Hall. My point is, his career was much better than mine, so I don't think I should be in.”


Isner's serve is unquestionably one of the most effective shots in tennis history.

Isner's serve is unquestionably one of the most effective shots in tennis history.

Steve Flink, the veteran journalist and tennis historian who was inducted into the Hall in 2017 as a Contributor, told me that, generally, the gatekeepers want to see at least one major singles title, preferably two, on a candidate’s resume.

“There was a lot of debate about Andy, but his consistency was impressive,” Flink said. “I think him getting in on the ballot was the right thing.”

Having hard and fast criteria is all well and good. It makes things easier. But I learned over the years as a voter that if you rely rigidly on a checklist of accomplishments, worthy candidates get left out of the discussion. More importantly, the Hall itself has no hard eligibility requirements. (You can see the induction categories and eligibility criteria here.)

Isner, now 37, has certainly accumulated “a distinguished record of competitive achievement at the highest international level,” and merits consideration for his “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” Isner may also qualify under the “Contributor” category, where the main criteria for the nominated person is to be: “A true pioneer, visionary leader, or individual/group who has made a transcendent impact on the sport.”

As the holder of an ace record that is unlikely to be eclipsed, Isner should be a shoo-in. The ace is the celebrity among tennis strokes, the equivalent of baseball’s home run or the NBA’s three-point shot. But Isner’s achievement goes beyond the sheer number of aces he hit; he never would have accumulated as many had he not won enough matches to build the count. He meets a significant benchmark with his W-L record of 472-299. He has two wins over Roger Federer (including on clay in Switzerland, during Davis Cup), two over Novak Djokovic, and he’s taken Rafael Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros.


The match took 183 games, and its fifth set took 138.

The match took 183 games, and its fifth set took 138.

Consistency alone won’t get you into the Hall (as David Ferrer, among others, can attest), nor should it. But taken together with other factors, Isner’s win production and his perennial place in or around the Top 15 for the better part of 15 years surely helps his case.

Also, consider how “transcendent impact on the sport” may apply. Isner was involved in the most amazing and longest match in tennis history, that 11:05, three-day, first-round win at Wimbledon over Nicolas Mahut in 2010. That clash, on Court 18, ended 70-68 in the fifth, and generated more headlines, interest and chatter in the mainstream media than even the epic battles between Federer and Nadal.

Remarkably, Wimbledon was the site of another record-breaking performance by Isner, although that time he ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. He was beaten in a 2018 semifinal war with Kevin Anderson—the longest semi in Wimbledon history, at 6:36 (the score was 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (11-9), 6-4, 26-24). The fifth set alone ate up 2:55.

Consider contribution to the game in this example as well. The march—and the negative impact it had on the ensuing final (a weary Anderson was crushed by Djokovic) triggered Wimbledon to adopt a fifth-set tiebreaker.

Isner may not wish to be inducted as a Contributor, but that he qualifies as one strengthens the case for his inclusion as a player. Call it his ace-in-the-hole.