The Relentless Agony of John Isner

Ever since wooden rackets fell out of favor, the tennis literati have bemoaned the incoming tide of power tennis drowning the finesse, technique, and beauty of the game1.

Tennis has changed as more power (and better technology) has entered into it. The serve-and-volley is more of a parlor trick than a standard style of play. Sasha Zverev has made himself the Next Big Thing despite having an allergic reaction to the court inside the service line. Points are played more and more back at the baseline, with players picking their spot to crack a winner rather than looking for their chance to attack the net.

That hasn’t made the game any less exciting.

Watching Rafa Nadal unleash buggy whip forehands from 20 feet behind the baseline onto the chalk is incredible theatre. Watching Sasha Zverev take control of rallies with precision, well, it isn’t incredible theatre, but it’s admirable. Francis Tiafoe taking Roger Federer to five sets on the back of crunching forehands was tremendous. Nick Kyrgios hitting bunt backhands down the line when he’s on form is crazy fun.

Power doesn’t equal boring.

Unless you’re talking about John Isner.

John Isner is a force. He is a freak athlete. Standing at 6-11, John Isner is able to pound serves into places you’re not supposed to. In Cincinnati, he was kicking serves into the bleachers. While the court didn’t have an exceedingly large amount of room between the baseline and the back wall, the wall was still pretty tall. The way Isner’s serve reacts, with its massive kick and unnaturally high origin, is a unique beast in the tennis game.

Isner is winning a sparkling 80% of his first serve points.

He also tops the tour by putting 70% of his first serves in.

He gets broken in a measly 7% of his service games.

The rhythm to a John Isner service game is familiar. Smack the serve, and if somehow the point is still continuing, deposit a rocket forehand into a corner. Maybe sometimes he’ll follow the serve all the way in. The game plan is unchanged: win the point within the first three shots. Isner has 163 more aces than anyone else on tour this year.

His return game is abysmal.

Other than knockoff, decrepit, mummified John Isner replica Ivo Karlovic, no one is worse at winning points without being able to dictate the point with the first shot. Using the ATP’s Return Rating, the gap between Isner and Dustin Brown, the third worst returner on tour, is about equal to the gap between the best returner in the world, Andy Murray, and the 10th best, Pablo Carreno Busta2.

He is hamstrung by his size. Opponents can abuse the body serve in tight, or his lack of ability out wide to take control of the point and seize it quickly. There’s a reason why it was John Isner who played a 5th set that went 138 games. He is (nearly) impossible to break. He finds it impossible to break serve. It is unending.

John Isner is what the natural end point of tennis looks like. The most efficient shot in tennis is the serve. It’s the only shot that is the exact same every time. The shot maximizes the amount of pace you can put on the ball, and it immediately puts you in position to attack. It is only natural that as tennis continues to morph into more of a power based game, the serve would grow in importance. In the most efficient iteration of the game, everyone would have dominant serves and every set would be decided on a tiebreak, where “mini-breaks” of one point would be enough to clinch the set.

John Isner is the spreadsheet’s favorite player.

But the margins fight back against Isner.

Tennis is a joy because it is the margins that make players great. The best basketball teams in the world are the ones who take the most efficient shots every time down the court. There is no market inefficiency that can be exploited by having a polished mid-range jump shot. But in tennis, even as ridiculous power and 6-foot-11 superhumans enter the game, the elite players are the ones who can turn any situation into a winning play. You have to be able to come to net. You have to have angles. You have to be able to neutralize serves. You have to haveĀ somethingĀ that you can pull out of nowhere when the time is right. The Big Four of Nadal, Murray, Federer, and Djokovic can, and will, beat you from anywhere on the court.

Mischa Zverev’s straight-set dismantling of Isner was the game of tennis getting its sweet revenge on the big-hitting American. At Wimbledon this year, just 8% of first serves points were played as serve-and-volleys. On the grass courts of Wimbledon, the surface best designed for the tactic, the serve-and-volley was treated as a relic of a bygone era. At the US Open and its hard courts that provide a bomber’s paradise, Mischa Zverev served-and-volleyed every. Single. First. Serve. And poor John Isner could only watch as passing shot after passing shot caught tape, flew long, or was redirected into open court. It was brutal. It was tremendous to watch.

It was the best.

For as good as John Isner makes his serve, he was never going to be a great player. His game was doomed to peak with a handful of 250 series titles.

And now he’s past his prime. His serve will start to slow. His forehand will not push his opponent as far off the court. His lunging returns will more and more only draw air. There is another 6-foot-11 American, 20-year-old Reilly Opelka, who will someday take his place.

But while the next generation’s great players round out their games, cushioning forehands into welcoming corners with touch volleys, John Isner will stand across from them, raging against a darkness that will overtake him.

Serve.

Serve.

Ace.

Serve.

Forehand.

And on and on.

And on and on.

Footnotes

  1. John McEnroe, hello.
  2. This is only of the 83 players included in the ATP stats leaderboard, because the ATP stats page is bad.

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