Despite Monte Carlo Loss, Isner Picking Up Speed on Clay

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

A few months ago, we looked at John Isner and his apparent distance away from the red clay. We went through his good match history on clay and how, when he played up to his potential, he could challenge just about anyone in the world. It was also puzzling, though, why Isner wouldn’t take opportunities to play more on clay and further that aspect of his game.

Well, it looks like Isner has finally decided to go for it. He played in Houston, the only clay court tournament in the United States. This isn’t really surprising, though. Many Americans come to this tournament as a matter both of pride and collecting a bit of money. Also, it is a good introduction to the clay season and often has a relatively weak field, allowing decent players to get more match play on the dirt (when Andy Roddick has won a clay tournament three times, you know the fields can’t be that strong).

Isner started off this year in a bit of a slump, to put things mildly. He reached a few semifinals of 250-level tournaments but has some bad losses and hasn’t really looked good all year. He was forced to skip the Australian Open with a fluke knee injury and hasn’t been able to find much of a rhythm this season. In Indian Wells, where he was defending a semifinal showing, Isner lost his first match to Lleyton Hewitt. He managed to win one match in Miami before being beaten by Marin Cilic without much trouble. And Isner was easily handled by Djokovic in Davis Cup, but there is no shame in that.

Now, though, is where Isner is getting smart. He won the tournament in Houston, beating some good clay-courters along the way. You could see his confidence increase in each successive match. He was playing attacking tennis, taking everything in his hitting zone and absolutely blasting it.

Isner is not the most precise baseline player and having to hit low, awkward balls is a problem for him. But on clay, everything bounces up. He keeps enough spin on the ball to keep it coming back where he can just tee off on it. I’ve joked before that Isner doesn’t need to ever hit anything other than his massively high-bouncing kick serves. And while that is obviously an exaggeration, the point behind it stands. Isner was made to play on high-bouncing clay.

Isner took a very late wild card to come and play Monte Carlo, the optional Masters 1000 event on the tour. He had a very short turnaround from Houston (he played his first Monte Carlo match less than 48 hours after the Houston final and over a quarter of that gap was spent travelling across the Atlantic, time difference included), something he probably didn’t expect when he got the wild card. He played well against Gulbis before succumbing to fatigue and an injury, but the match did show that he kept to his strategy of attacking everything in his hitting zone. He now has 3 weeks to heal and rest up as he will not play between Monte Carlo and the two Masters events in May.

Isner seems to have realized that clay is the surface that he can really hit his stride on. Deciding to play Monte Carlo is a great sign from him, regardless of how it turned out. At 27, Isner is not one of the younger guys on tour anymore. You almost get the feeling that if he wants to have a breakthrough stretch of his career, it has to come during this year’s clay season. And, well, at least he’s giving himself a chance to do that.

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