Why Won’t John Isner Play on Clay?

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

John Isner is honestly baffling as a player. He has probably the best serve in the world. It is certainly one of the biggest, it is quite accurate, and his height allows him to do things with it that most others can’t. Even when compared to similar players like Milos Raonic or Kevin Anderson, Isner’s serve just seems more effective. So it would stand to reason that, like other powerful servers and big hitters, Isner’s best bet at being a top-level player is to play as much on hard courts as possible and to try and just power his way through as many matches as he can.

This theory has worked for him and brought him into the top 20 in the early years of his career. Unfortunately, it is the wrong outlook. Because if there is one surface that can put Isner over the top—if there is one area in which he can truly become a top player in the world—it is the red clay courts of Europe. Does this sound strange? After all, Americans and big servers are not known for their prowess on this surface. So why would Isner be at his best on clay? Let’s look at Isner’s history.

Isner has played several memorable and historic matches, the highlight obviously being his record-shattering marathon against Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. But, if I was forced to judge, the best match that Isner has played in his career was actually one that he lost. After a poor 2010, Isner’s ranking had fallen into the 50s. As such, he was unseeded at the 2011 French Open. Unluckily for him, he drew Rafael Nadal in the first round.

It was a match that was expected to be potentially troublesome for Nadal but no one had thought for a second that Isner could win. Isner played the match of his life, serving well and really hanging with Nadal on clay. He managed to break Rafa once and took two tiebreaks to really give him a chance to win the match. No one else took two sets off Rafa that entire tournament. What doesn’t often get mentioned, however, is that Isner could have played that match even better.

Isner’s forehand on any ball sitting up in the middle of the court is lethal. Isner’s kick serve on the high-bouncing clay is nearly unreturnable, and certainly cannot be kept low if put back in play. This is a combination that Isner used during that match, but not nearly enough. He had serves that would bounce over Rafa’s head. Rafa would sometimes stand as far as 15 feet back to return Isner’s second serves. This is a potent weapon that Isner for some reason just doesn’t use.

Isner’s clay skills were not only shown once, though. If he has had one match in his career as impressive as that Roland Garros match against Rafa, it was his first-round Davis Cup rubber against Roger Federer last year. Isner used his variety of serves and massive forehand to really just beat Federer off of the high-bouncing clay court. Isner has these skills and has shown that they are not only flukes, the only real question is why isn’t he embracing his clay court potential. Not to mention, of course, that Isner also took Djokovic to 5 sets on clay in a Davis Cup match back in 2010 and really could have won that match. Now, 2010 Djokovic is not quite the Djokovic of today, but he was still a top 3 player in the world and was one of the best on clay. That match showed us the beginning of Isner’s potential on clay. The Nadal and Federer matches cemented it.

Isner is playing at least five tournaments in a row at this point in the year. Last week he played in San Jose, losing in the semifinals to Tommy Haas. He is currently playing the 500-level tournament in Memphis and will follow with Delray Beach, Indian Wells, Miami, and then probably Davis Cup. These are all on hard courts. I can understand why he wants to stay in the United States and that he might not want to go to clay before coming back to the two hard court Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami. But this is his chance. He could be playing in the South American clay court swing instead, which in turn would prepare him well for the European clay court swing in a few months and Roland Garros at the end of May.

Isner is a very good player. His lack of a real baseline game is a major inhibition, but it certainly isn’t so prohibitively bad that he can’t compete with the top players. He needs to embrace who he is, though, and realize what surface and style will best suit his game. He is muddling around in the top 10-20 right now, which isn’t bad. But he could definitely do better. He needs to work on his baseline game (obviously). Most of all, though, he just needs to play on clay, utilize his lethal high-bouncing serves and shots, and attack at every opportunity he gets. Doing that almost earned him an epic upset over the best clay-courter of all time. Doing that did earn him an upset over arguably the greatest player of all time. If he can finally realize that and consistently utilize his game in that fashion, there really is no telling how much he can achieve.