A decade has passed since an American male tennis player last won a Grand Slam tournament. That’s right, a 10-year drought for the country that produced Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Andy Roddick.
Who would have imagined as the overjoyed 21-year-old Roddick climbed into the stands to hug his parents after winning the 2003 U.S. Open that the next 39 majors would go by without an American winner? By comparison, Serena and Venus Williams have won 13 Slams during that span.
On the eve of the 2013 U.S. Open, there is reason for hand-wringing at the U.S. Tennis Association. Although they are giddy about plans to build a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, putting an end to rain-delayed Opens, there is no covering up the lack of American elite players in the men’s game.
When the men’s tour rankings began on Aug. 23, 1973, there were six Americans in the top 20. Two weeks ago, for the first time in 40 years, there were none. In fact, there were only two in the top 80. At Wimbledon last month, no American man reached the third round for the first time in a century.
But there is a sliver of hope for star-spangled tennis fans. A towering sliver, actually. He stands 6-10, wears size-15 shoes and his serve is one of the most lethal weapons in the game. John Isner jumped from No. 22 to No. 14 in the rankings last week following a fantastic showing at the Western and Southern Open outside Cincinnati.
He beat three top-10 players there — No.1 Novak Djokovic, No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 10 Milos Raonic — and then gave Rafael Nadal fits in the final before the Spaniard pulled out a 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-3) victory. Isner has been making life miserable for opponents for the past several weeks and seems to be peaking just in time.
He won the Atlanta Open at the end of July and reached the final in Washington. Since July, he has won 16 of his 20 matches and the fact that he beat two former U.S. Open champions in Ohio cannot be dismissed.
Despite the American’s success, Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer remain safer bets to win the U.S. Open. Isner and Nadal would meet in the fourth round. But the tall American with the booming serve (he clocked 140 mph last week) has the type of game that makes even the world’s best players uncomfortable. If enough things fall into place, he could make a deep run.
“I have the belief that I could beat anyone, and I know no matter who I’m playing, I’m not the type of guy that’s going to go out there and lose [6-1] and [6-1] or [6-1] and [6-2], just because of my serve,” he said. “If I’m dialed in and I’m focused, I’m very tough to beat, no matter who I’m playing. It doesn’t matter the surface I’m playing on, I’m sort of a pain in the [butt] for a lot of these players.”
Isner, 28, is a late bloomer. He spent four years playing at the University of Georgia before unleashing his serve on the pros. He leads the tour with 749 aces in 48 matches, and he wins 90 percent of his service games, more than any other player.
Just ask Nadal what it feels like to be across the net from a serve that appears to be launched from out of a tree.
“He’s very tall, so his angles are impossible to return sometimes,” Nadal said. “The speed is high, but at the same time, the spin is very difficult because, if I go to turn inside, it’s very difficult to read how the ball is coming. Then if I go four meters, five meters behind — and that’s what I tried for a lot of moments — I’m still hitting the ball one meter over my shoulders.”