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John Isner, serving ace and winner of the longest tennis match, ends career at US Open
He was a proverbial “gentle giant” who left as many fans as aces scattered around the world’s courts.
Published Aug 31, 2023
3 HOURS of Tennis?! Watch as we recreate John Isner's routine in Daily Pro
NEW YORK—John Isner’s unique career in pro tennis ended under sunny skies at the US Open much the same way it began 17 years ago: with a blizzard of aces (48 in total) cast across a brutal, five-set struggle lasting almost four hours and ending with a dramatic match tiebreaker.
Isner was beaten in the second round by an inspired Michael Mmoh—who saved a match point—3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (7). Isner's professional tennis career officially ended later in the day, after a three-set loss in doubles with Jack Sock (who is also retiring at the Open).
Isner’s legacy will rest on two pillars: the memories of an explosive serve that Andy Murray recently called the best he has ever faced, and his companionable nature. He was a proverbial “gentle giant” who left as many fans as aces scattered around the world’s courts.
“There were certainly times when I was the only person playing Madrid and Rome, the only American there, for a couple years,” Isner said. “That was sort of weird for me. But, yeah, what my legacy is. . . I just want to be remembered most importantly from my colleagues as a guy that I’m pretty easy to get along with off the court. I think I’ve had great relationships with the guys before me, my contemporaries on tour. I feel like I get along with all of them.”
Now 38 years old, the 6’10” ace machine seemed an outlier, perhaps a fleeting novelty, when he first appeared among us in 2007 in Washington D.C., generating headlines as a wild-card entry in his very first ATP Tour event. There, fresh off a full, four-year stint at the University of Georgia (back then a seldom-traveled path in big-time tennis), Isner won third-set tiebreakers on five consecutive days in the steamy capital before falling in the final to his star compatriot, Andy Roddick.
It was impossible to appreciate the significance of that event when it happened, but now we can savor the irony. Roddick was the last American man to have won a Grand Slam title (at the 2003 US Open). That final immediately positioned Isner as a potential successor. But Roddick never did win another major, nor did Isner win his first. It wasn’t for lack of trying, as illustrated by his history over the course of the last 16 years—a period during which Isner ticked all the other ATP boxes and remained one of the game’s most feared players.
It was also a time during which Isner often single-handedly manned the helm of the faltering American effort in men’s tennis. Bombarded with endless questions about the nation’s Grand Slam drought, Isner shouldered the load with great patience and poise.
A native of North Carolina, Isner is conservative and well-mannered. He was responsible and good for his word throughout his tennis career. He has been the good scout of American tennis, the kid who would carry an elderly person’s groceries up the stairs, an athlete who lived by the motto, “be prepared.”
That’s no throwaway reference. When Isner talks about the pride he takes in his career, he veers away from feats of on-court derring-do, or ace statistics.
“I took great pride in preparing,” he said. “It’s not easy to get a body like mine ready to play for 17 consecutive years. It’s not easy at all. That was the part I really enjoyed all throughout my career.”
Isner has been a valued mentor and advisor to emerging American talents who wanted nothing more than to interrupt or end Isner’s eight-year stint as the top American player.
“When I was a junior, then for a long time when I first started playing, started my pro career, he was the guy,” Taylor Fritz, currently the top-ranked American at No. 9, said during his pre-US Open press conference. “He’s been on top of American tennis for a really long time. He was always super just, like, nice, welcoming to all of the new younger guys like myself and Reilly [Opelka] and Tommy [Paul].”
It’s not easy to get a body like mine ready to play for 17 consecutive years. It’s not easy at all. That was the part I really enjoyed all throughout my career. John Isner
Just a few days ago in Flushing Meadows, Christopher Eubanks recalled how a conversation with Isner a few years ago in Acapulco, Mexico, impacted his own career. At the time, Eubanks had been very “frustrated” with his lack of progress on the tour. (This year, it all seemed to click.)
“John told me, Bigger guys with bigger games (Eubanks is 6’7”), sometimes it just takes us longer to figure it out. He really, really reassured me I was going to be fine.
“I think kind of hearing those words from him. . . gave me a little bit extra push to kind of know it’s going to work out.”
Isner’s legacy is nuanced. He was the central fixture in a number of historic events, owing partly to his ability to spit aces like a Pez dispenser (no one even comes close to his ace output, at over 14,000). But while Isner’s height was the great enabler in his quest for aces, it was also a detriment to his mobility and rallying proficiency. He was more adept at holding serve and getting into tiebreakers than at winning them, owing to the slimmer margin of error in those shootouts. Isner was the only man to have won more than 500 tiebreakers, but he ranks just 14th in career tiebreaker winning percentage.
There’s no quibbling with Isner’s record when it comes to day-in, day-out consistency, though. He finished in the ATP Top 20 for 10 consecutive years between 2010 and 2019, but such stats and accomplishments do nothing to convey Isner’s basic decency and humility, or his devotion to his craft.
Not long ago, I wrote a column suggesting that Isner ought to be nominated for inclusion in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Can you imagine Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeout leader being shut out of Cooperstown? But when I spoke to John about the issue, he told me: “I do not think I’m a Hall of Famer by any stretch of the imagination.” He told me he didn’t think he belonged because he never won a major.
“That’s just how I feel. I mean, I’ve had a pretty good career, but it’s not Hall worthy in my estimation.”
Although he never won a major, Isner can take pride in many other signal achievements. He was a principal in the most astonishing match in tennis history, a three-day, five-set, first-round win at Wimbledon over Nicolas Mahut. That 183-game clash, on Court 18, ended 70-68 in the fifth set and it generated more headlines, more buzz and chatter in the media and beyond than even those epic battles between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
How about that third-round win over then No. 5 Andy Roddick in Arthur Ashe Stadium in the 2009 US Open, which Isner describes as “a pivotal moment” in his career? And neither Isner nor Federer is likely to forget the America’s Davis Cup win over the Swiss icon on Roger’s home soil—on red clay, no less—in 2012.
“That was cool,” Isner said the other day. “The [clay] court was really bad, bad bounces were everywhere. He didn't like that. I loved it. The worse the court, the better for me.”
Isner hit the apex of his career in 2018, when he finally punched through with a Masters title in Miami. (He reached four other Masters 1000 finals.) Later that year, he lost an epic heartbreaker to Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon semifinals (26-24 in the fifth set), but the run—his first and only appearance in the final four of a major—lifted him to a career-high ranking of No. 8.
“I never imagined myself having this much success for this long,” Isner said. “And being the top American, I don’t know how many years it was, just maintaining my ranking for a very long time, is something I’m very proud of.
“I took great pride in the preparation it took day-in, day-out, year after year after year. I really truly enjoyed that.”