Marathon Man Isner keeps on chugging on last grand stage

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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NEW YORK -- For John Isner, the name and the event forever remain inextricably intertwined. As was Bobby Thomson with the "Shot heard 'round the world" ... as was Dwight Clark with "The Catch," which sent the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl ... as was Roger Bannister when he became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes.

John Isner always will be the Marathon Man, the one who went three days, went 11 hours, 5 minutes, went 138 games in the final set of a first-round match at Wimbledon against Nicolas Mahut.

John Isner moves into the third round with a four-set win over Marco Chiudinelli. (AP)  
John Isner moves into the third round with a four-set win over Marco Chiudinelli. (AP)  
The one who won.

Fate, fable and persistence conspired to make him famous, and rather than fight the fame, the 25-year-old Isner accepts it.

"I don't want that to be the lasting image of my career," said Isner, aware in this hyper world of Twitter and YouTube it might become just that.

"So it's up to me to make it not that way, to do well in big tournaments such as this."

This is the U.S. Open, tennis' final Grand Slam event each year, and Friday, on an afternoon when Hurricane Earl made its presence felt only briefly with a few minutes of mid-afternoon rain, Isner recorded a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4 over Marco Chiudinelli of Switzerland in the second round.

You think of athletes and moments, how at first Don Larsen virtually refused to say another word about becoming the only person ever to pitch a perfect game in the World Series and then did a full 180, answering every question and telling us he never got tired of talking about history.

Whether Isner, a laconic sort, will grow weary of his biggest claim to fame thus far is as hard to predict as whether he someday might win the Open or Wimbledon or one of the other two Slams. But surely it's easier to discuss than his height (6-feet-9).

When asked if, as the highest-seeded American (18th) remaining in the men's draw, there is pressure to restore national pride to a sport that has been commandeered by the Spanish, Swiss, Serbs and, acknowledging Andy Murray, Scots, Isner said no.

"I don't feel the weight of it," Isner said. "I think my second year on tour [2008], when I did really well the first half of the year, I kind of felt that pressure. And I kind of regressed. Whatever happens, happens. I'm not putting any extra pressure on myself."

What happened after Wimbledon was that Isner's body acted as if it had been involved in an 11-hour match.

Returning to the U.S., he took a week off, then played at Atlanta and "felt pretty good." But then, whether it was the constant media attention or the after effects of the unrelenting tennis, he said he "ran out of gas."

More U.S. Open

Isner rested again at home in North Carolina, but at Cincinnati a couple of weeks back, he injured his ankle so severely the early diagnosis was torn ligaments. Even after a revised judgment, Isner believed he would be limping for more than a month and miss this Open.

He was advised to rehab the ankle on an FSM (for Frequency Microcurrent Machine), the device Terrell Owens credited with enabling him to play in the 2005 Super Bowl two weeks after breaking his ankle.

"Obviously my foot wasn't as bad as his," Isner said, "but it's worked wonders for me."

He concedes that Wimbledon match against the Frenchman Mahut, with whom Isner has become good friends, worked wonders in another way.

"I got to do a lot of cool things I never would get to do," Isner said.

Isner was on the David Letterman Show. Isner threw a first pitch at Yankee Stadium ("Not very good, it was high"). He threw another first pitch at Nationals Park ("That one was a lot better").

"The upside is I get a lot more recognition," he said. "I mean, obviously, being a part of that match, people were going to talk about that for a long, long time. That's going to stick with me as long as I live."

Isner's strength is the serve, using his leverage. You remember him recording 38 aces last year in the Open to knock out Andy Roddick in the third round, a perplexed Roddick asking rhetorically, "What can you do when someone's serving like that?"

Against Chiudinelli on Friday Isner had 24 aces. The more often the person on the other side of the net doesn't return the serve, the less frequently the server has to put stress on an ankle still not completely recovered but getting there. Smart tactic.

Isner spent four years at the University of Georgia and in 2007 was runner-up in the NCAA singles championship. Cognizant of the fact no teenagers from the U.S. are in the men's top 100 rankings, he is all in favor of America's young players going to college for a year or two.

"I think going to college is really going to help them," he said, although he admits Sam Querrey (who won Friday) and 18-year-old Ryan Harrison (who lost in five sets) are exceptions.

The experience helps ... just as the experience of playing a 70-68 final set at Wimbledon always will help John Isner, the Marathon Man.

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