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Greensboro’s John Isner: A regular guy had an extraordinary week at Wimbledon

Greensboro’s John Isner reached his first Grand Slam semifinal before losing a marathon, five-set match at Wimbledon to Kevin Anderson.
Greensboro’s John Isner reached his first Grand Slam semifinal before losing a marathon, five-set match at Wimbledon to Kevin Anderson. AP

Tennis is a sport where often 15-year-olds are singled out as “the guy.”

Greensboro’s John Isner wasn’t “the guy.” He earned a tennis scholarship to Georgia, and the notion of playing professionally only became realistic in Isner’s junior season with the Bulldogs.

That made what Isner did this week at Wimbledon all the more significant. Unlike a Pete Sampras or Jim Courier, Isner was never destined to play on center court, much less advance to a semifinal. He stretched South African Kevin Anderson so far Friday before losing — 26-24 in the fifth set — that this match might change Wimbledon’s policy concerning tiebreakers.

An exhausted Anderson praised Isner, a longtime friend from college tennis, then said Wimbledon seriously needs to rethink not allowing fifth sets to end in tiebreakers. Call it the “Isner Effect” — this is nothing new.

It was Isner who once survived a 70-68 fifth set, in 2010, against Nicolas Mahut. That match was about aces and grit. Isner’s whole career has been aces and grit.

He once served 113 aces in a single match. A huge percentage of Isner’s sets end in tiebreakers because he is so hard to break and he doesn’t have the return game to be great at breaking.

At 6-foot-10, he is one of the tallest players on the pro tour. That creates angles for him as a server that are devastating. But his size can be a hindrance as far as the sudden stops and starts that tennis entails.

An incomplete skill set? Sure. But there are enough weapons that Isner has been the top United States player of his generation. He entered this Wimbledon 10th in the world, and his result should move him to the highest ranking of his 11-year career.

Keep pounding

Tennis has a reputation as being preppy and snooty. Isner is anything but.

He wears his hat backward, is sponsored by a fishing-and-hunting retailer and is a big pro wrestling fan. He adores the Carolina Panthers so much that he’s been known to wake up at odd hours all over the world to watch games live. He got a big kick out of beating the Panthers’ “Keep Pounding” drum.

I think of Isner the way I do retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He’s a regular guy who just happens to have an extraordinary job. Isner might now live in Dallas (where his wife owns a jewelry business), but he never stopped being of North Carolina.

A simple example: A few years ago Winston-Salem snagged an ATP tour stop, but it was an inopportune week to draw a strong field — immediately before the U.S. Open, when most pros skip playing to get to New York, practice and rest.

Isner has played Winston-Salem frequently, considering it his home swing, along with the tournament a few weeks earlier in Atlanta (i.e. Dawg Country). Isner loves hanging out in the house where he grew up and hosting cookouts for his friends on the tour.

Late bloomer

Elite tennis players tend to turn pro in their late teens and hit their peak in their mid-20s. Isner reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at 33. He had reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal only once previously, the 2011 U.S. Open.

Grass, tennis’ fastest surface, should most reward Isner’s booming serve, which regularly exceeds 130 mph. But not until recently did he have the net game to optimize the advantage that serve provides. In nine previous Wimbledon appearances, Isner had never advanced beyond the third round, calling some of his tournaments in the famous England venue a “house of horrors.”

This became his window, with top-seeded Roger Federer and third-seeded Marin Cilic both losing in Isner’s half of the draw. Anderson upset Federer, but certainly he was beatable. At one juncture, Isner was within two points of winning this match.

By mid-afternoon back in North Carolina Friday, the drama in this match was as much about how long it might last as who would ultimately prevail. What would it take for one of these guys to string together four points against the other’s serve?

Then, 6 ½ hours after it started, Anderson jumped out 0-40 on Isner’s serve and broke. Between the serving dominance on grass and the mutual exhaustion, it seemed inconceivable Isner could break back. A few points later, his forehand went wide, ending the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history, with the second match — Rafael Nadal versus Novak Djokovic — still to play.

Tired and dejected as Isner must have been, he gathered his equipment and walked to the stands to sign a few autographs.

It was gracious. It was regular guy.

It was Isner.