American men tennis

John Isner Wins Opening Match at Wimbledon But Needs a Baseline Game

(June 24, 2013) I can’t even fathom how often these words are said. Sometimes it feels like it’s far too much and sometimes it’s nowhere near enough. But that is the way things are and it can’t be ignored any more.

John Isner could be a great tennis player. No, he will never have the movement and defensive prowess of a Nadal or the precision of a Federer. But a player doesn’t need that to be great. Isner has his own strengths and could compete at the top of the game if he could overcome his weaknesses. But we’ve been saying this for 6 years now and there has been little to no improvement.

There is nothing overly fancy to discuss here. This isn’t about utilizing a certain shot or tweaking some other aspect of his game. This is straight-up about being able to play from the baseline with other professional tennis players.

Isner’s game is his serve. Everyone knows that. He has one of the best serves in tennis. It is huge, it is fast, it is accurate, and his kicker is lethal too. He has ridden that serve to tournament victories, Davis Cup upsets, and even a Masters Series final. It has kept him in the top 20 for much of the past five years. But it is nowhere near enough if he wants to reach his full potential.

Just look at today’s first-round match at Wimbledon. Yes, Isner got through in straight sets. And he did it in his normal fashion, winning two tiebreaks. But the fact that the match had two sets go to tiebreaks in the first place means that Isner just wasn’t doing enough.

Isner was playing Evgeny Donskoy, one of the better Challenger-level players but a Challenger-level player nonetheless. Isner, as a top 20 player, should run over him. This shouldn’t be a close match. And Isner ran away with the first set in good form. But he couldn’t earn a break in the next two sets.

Isner’s problems are even more than that though. It isn’t only that he can’t break even poor servers; it’s how the rallies go along as Isner competed in them. Isner couldn’t win points from the baseline. His serve was excellent. When he could follow up a serve with a big forehand it was lethal. But otherwise, Isner was less than mediocre in rallies.

This is the fact and it must be dealt with—Isner, at his current level, cannot consistently win rallies from the baseline against even Challenger-level players, let alone better players. He needs to find some semblance of a baseline game if he wants to compete with better players. You just cannot win matches when it is a near-foregone conclusion that any rally longer than 5 shots will end with you dumping a ball into the net.

Isner needs more than just rally shots. He needs to be able to hit shots from the baseline that can allow him to win points. Then again, he can often just barely hit shots that keep him in the rally.

It is a little unfair to criticize like this as we don’t know exactly what goes on in his practices, but it is clear that if he is working on this that it’s not very effective. He needs to overhaul his game completely to be able to compete or he needs to utilize his strengths to mask his lack of a baseline game. He is very good at the net and his long wingspan is hard to pass. Maybe he can start chipping and charging on return just to help him get into those games. He is a very talented player and he has options as to how to get even better. But he has to do something because the status quo just isn’t enough for him right now.