The Towering Champion: John Isner Talks About Tennis, Animals, and Philanthropy
Watching John Isner, America's top male ranked tennis player, walk towards you, towering at nearly 7 feet tall, evokes feelings of inevitable intimidation. However, the Miami Open runner-up and 2018 champ, is anything but intimidating. I found the man, who is considered one of the best servers ever to play on the ATP World Tour, to be very reassuring and engaging --a reminder to never judge a book by its cover.
John Isner on Miami Living Magazine
John Isner as the Miami Living Magazine cover star in 2019 (available for purchase).
Ranked as high as 10 in the world, John has been enjoying a list of great achievements over the last few years, including winning the Miami Open in 2018, reaching the semis at the 2018 Wimbledon Championships, and making it, once again, to the Miami Open finals this year (losing to the great Roger Federer).
John holds the record for playing the longest tennis match in history, lasting 11 hours and 5 minutes over three grueling days, and additionally holds the second-highest record of aces in tennis history: over 11,403 aces and still counting! The American legend, who has made the art of “acing” a routine weapon, took time to chat with Miami Living about defending his title, playing in Miami, and more.
Interview by Markin Abras
So, what does it feel like playing in Miami as the defending champ?
John Isner: For sure, it feels a little bit different, but ultimately what happened last year is cliché. It's really old news. It's great memories for me but I have to put that behind me. But it is cool to come back as the defending champ. I think if I had won this championship many years ago, it would put a little more pressure on me, but right now, where I am in my career, I’m not feeling any pressure coming to Miami. I’m trying to do my best this year.
How about playing as the defending champ of your only 1000 ATP Master Series title? After all, Miami Open is one of your most important career wins so far.
JI: It does make a little bit of a difference. I’ve won lots of other titles, but not nearly as big as this one. I’ve had success defending some titles before but I’ve never defended a 1000 ATP title before. Chances are, I won’t defend it.
Really, I’m a bit surprised to hear that from the defending champ!
JI: Well, I only won one of these in my career. So the odds are I probably won’t win this title. At the same time, I do have such amazing memories from Miami last year, which can’t help me necessarily win the title again.
If this is the case, then what made you win the title?
JI: Well yeah, I did. I was coming into this tournament not playing well. I sort of labored through the first match. I got through it, and as any player will tell you, winning a tough first match can maybe just take a lot of the pressure off. My second match I played much better than my first. And then from the round of 16 on, I started playing incredibly well. And so, once I won my round of 16 match and got myself in the quarterfinals, at this stage, I knew this could turn out well for me because of how well I was playing and I was in a good spot.
Richard Ross for Mizzen+Main
You are the top ranked American player. Does this add any additional pressure when you play in America?
JI: No, it does not. For what it’s worth, I’ve been in the top American, I think, 6 in the last 7 years and you know, for me, it’s great. I want to be the top American player for as long as I can, but it does not add extra pressure.
And how do you respond to critics saying that the American players underperform at the majors? That criticism has been lingering for some time.
JI: That criticism is warranted. I don’t know that we’re underperforming, it’s just that we haven’t gotten ourselves in a position to really do great things at majors, so I think the criticism is fine, it comes with the territory. Look, it has been 16 years since an American has won a Grand Slam.
In regards to your own game, I noticed a progression towards an “ultra aggressive” style of tennis. Was this approach of play done by chance or a strategic tactic?
JI: Definitely not by chance. It’s just realizing my strengths and realizing my weaknesses. And you know, I’m not going to win matches by grinding out 20 ball rallies against these players, because, to be honest, they’re such incredible ball strikers! I know that my opponents want me in a match that involves long ball rallies. My goal is to try to make my opponents really uncomfortable, even if that means I’m feeling a little uncomfortable myself. But the most important thing I can do is to try to put myself in my opponents’ shoes. Making my opponents uncomfortable is key for me to do my best.
How about your weaknesses? Can you elaborate on them?
JI: For sure, my movement. It is not my strength, but I think with my size, I’ve moved pretty well. I’m also always trying to work on my return game, and I think last week, I did a lot of good things there. I was winning matches pretty easy, which is nice. It takes a lot of stress off me. But there are lots of matches that I’ve won because of the strength of my serve. And there has been some matches, actually, a lot of close matches, that I’ve lost because I wasn’t able to break my opponent’s serve. I do believe it is a matter of just getting myself to improve in some key areas and play the right way. It’s much, much easier said than done, that’s for sure!
Last year, during the award ceremony, I recall you thanked a chiropractor, something that I’d never heard before. Most players have a physio and training partner, but a chiropractor?
JI: Well, that’s his professional title, that’s what he went to school for. He plays a role of a physio, but also a chiropractor. He does a lot more than just cracking and keeping me aligned. It’s stretching, since I have really long limbs and, of course, massages. Just different types of treatment, depending on what I need. My chiropractor that works with me is always learning and studying, which is great. He applies many new things to me, which is very important.
OFF THE COURT
I heard that you are very passionate about dogs. Tell me why and about your support?
JI: I just love dogs! I donate to American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org) every single year. Our family has always had dogs. Dogs are cooler than people.
Would you say, less complicated than humans [laughs]?
JI: In large parts, but I don’t know. I’m not different than anyone else that loves dogs. They’re just so much fun to be around, and I like cats too as well.
Yeah, I was wondering about cats, too!
JI: Yeah, I do. I just love animals. They play such an important role in our lives nowadays. They do so many incredible things. They bring so much joy to people and they certainly bring joy to me.
Do you support anything else, besides ASPCA? I know that your mother had cancer and that she’s a survivor.
JI: Yeah, I’ve done a charity event for years that has donated the proceeds to UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Centre in North Carolina (unclineberger.org) in Chapel Hill hospital, where my mom was treated. They have the greatest doctors in the world. She was fortunate to be so close to there when she came down with colon cancer. You know, I think it's very important to give back, of course. The cancer hit so close to home with me and with my family. And those doctors, I’ve said it a bunch, they saved her life. We are indeed lucky to have such great treatment so close to us.
Images courtesy of John Isner
GET TO KNOW JOHN:
Height: 6′ 10″
Top US Male Singles Tennis Player
Married to Madison McKinley
Singles World Ranking: 10
Singles Career Titles: 14
Singles Career Finalist: 13
Doubles Career Titles: 5
Doubles Career Finalist: 5
Began playing tennis at age 9
Enjoys playing poker, golf, basketball, and fishing
Fan of Carolina Panthers and University of Georgia football teams
Member of ATP Player Council for 3 terms from 2014-20
Wimbledon: SF (2018)
US Open QF (2011, 2018)
Australian Open 4R (2010, 2016)
French Open 4R (2014, 2016, 2018)
World record of 113 aces in Grand Slam singles match
Won Atlanta Open Single Title 4 Times
Won 3 Hall of Fame Single Titles
Won Miami Open in 2018, Runner-Up in 2019
4-Year All-American at Univ. of Georgia Record from 2004-07
Reached NCAA singles final and won doubles & team titles in 2007