- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- John Isner's clay-court season, which begins this week in Houston, stretches ahead of him like a wide, inviting red-brick road to the near horizon.
He played just half a dozen matches on the surface last year before he was diagnosed with mononucleosis and had to shut things down until the summer hard-court swing. In the interim, the 6-foot-9 North Carolina native has made gargantuan strides in his game and now lurks menacingly on the edge of the top 20 with very few rankings points to defend for the next couple of months.
Isner, who will turn 25 later this month, recently proved he could hold his own on clay in the most challenging of circumstances, an away Davis Cup tie with thousands of Serbians rooting for his competitive demise. Pressed into service for doubles at the last minute when Mike Bryan fell ill, Isner teamed with Mike's twin, Bob, to win the doubles point and keep the U.S. team alive, then pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit in a thrilling five-setter.
"He showed to the world that he can play as well on clay courts as well as he plays on hard courts,'' said Djokovic, who needed more than four hours to put Isner away. "He gave me a very hard time. He played like somebody that has longer experience in Davis Cup and not as somebody that just had the debut for his nation.'' Djokovic added that he and others think it's probably just a matter of time before Isner cracks the top 10.
That Davis Cup initiation was one hot crucible. Yet Isner doesn't regard the experience as a turning point so much as a direct result of getting well, getting into the gym and getting his mind around being a professional. "I went into that match expecting to win,'' he said two weeks ago during an off-day at the Sony Ericsson Open. "In college, I was in a lot of situations where the match came down to me and everyone was riding on it.''
Isner's real passage came when he beat Andy Roddick in the third round at the 2009 U.S. Open, overcoming both one of the world's top hard-court players and the intangible psychological edge held by a figurative older brother. As those five sets unfolded, it became clear that Isner's placid exterior concealed a deceivingly fierce drive.
"That's when for me, mentally, I knew my game was top-20 caliber at least,'' Isner said, sitting on the outdoor patio of the players' lounge in Key Biscayne, his legs extending well into the space between tables. "With the type of game I'm playing, and the way I'm playing it right now, I'm going to have a fighter's chance no matter who I'm playing.
"It's hard to explain. It's not like something that I sit down and think about at night. I'm just more comfortable out there. And another thing -- I know that nobody really wants to play me. They don't like seeing my name next to theirs in the draw. That's something I can use to my advantage.''
Fifty-two weeks ago, that wasn't the case. Isner was No. 127 in the world and many were inclined to see him as somewhat of a novelty act. He'd spent four years playing at the University of Georgia -- what serious pro does that nowadays? -- and admiration of his huge offensive weaponry was tempered, as it would be for any guy with his build, by questions about his stamina and movement.
He'd just begun working with Craig Boynton, the coaching director at Saddlebrook Academy in Tampa, who viewed Isner as a tall glass that was half full, not half empty. Better fitness bred confidence, which in turn bred more varied tactics, and the rest is recent history. Isner still relies on his serve, but he is by no means one-dimensional, showing touch at the net and winning points from the baseline as well.
In a first for him, Isner will be a seeded player at the prestigious clay-court events in Rome and Madrid this spring. He'll also make a return trip to Belgrade for the tournament owned by Djokovic's family and compete for the United States in the world team event in Germany. He's much more jazzed about playing on clay, which actually could complement aspects of his game, than grass, where the low bounce can be a tough reach from his altitude.
"He's going to be a better clay player than some people think,'' Boynton said. "The ball comes up high and it slows everything down. He can get behind the ball and set up for shots.
"My expectations are that he's really going to do well [this spring]. He's got a big hole in [rankings] points and it's a great opportunity. The goal is to be a top-16 seed at the French Open. He's five slots away.''
It would be easy to take Isner's bazooka of a serve for granted, but he doesn't. "There's been plenty of matches where I'm disappointed with my serving,'' he said. Power and angle notwithstanding, top players can still get a read on it if he doesn't take care to mix up his targets and his patterns.
"My kick serve is a lot of times more effective than my fastball,'' Isner said. "Down break point, the scouting report on me is that I'm going to try to and go fastball ace on some people. I can mix up a slower 110 [mph] kick, get it up high and then serve and volley off it and kind of throw some people off. I think some people are sitting on some serves because they think they know where it's going to go. When I'm up in games 40-0, I'll hit ridiculous aces off 110 mile an hour serves. I need to do it when I'm down, too.''
Isner opened the year by winning his first ATP-level tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, reached his second straight round of 16 at a major in Melbourne, then lost the Memphis final to his pal and doubles partner, Sam Querrey. (A fan has started a "Quisner" Twitter feed in their honor.) After Isner's impressive display in Serbia, he avenged the loss to Querrey at Indian Wells before losing to Rafael Nadal.
The shift to Miami's tropical weather proved difficult. Isner struggled during stretches of an intense second-round match against terrier-like fellow American Michael Russell, eventually winning in a third-set tiebreaker before a rowdy crowd supporting the former University of Miami standout. Between points, Isner moved as deliberately as a human being can, ambling around behind the baseline in the thick humidity, his shirt drenched and his face impassive whether he'd just smacked a winner or committed an error.
"He's good mentally; he doesn't let things bother him,'' Russell told a trio of reporters as he cooled down on a stationary bike afterward.
Admittedly biased because of his own, briefer college experience, Russell contends that the time Isner spent ripening at Georgia, where he put on 50 pounds and helped win an NCAA championship, likely contributed to his ability to keep his emotions in check at crucial junctures.
"College helps you mature as a human being,'' Russell said. "You're traveling all over the world, usually by yourself. It's courts-hotel, courts-hotel. It's pretty tough mentally to travel 30 weeks out of the year and not self-destruct.''
Things didn't end as well in the next round against Juan Carlos Ferrero, the former world No. 1 from Spain. Isner smashed a racket to smithereens after being broken early in the match and lost in three sets. He and Boynton returned to Tampa, where Isner actually allowed himself a rare day off, and then got to work sliding on the green clay courts at Saddlebrook Academy.
Boynton said Isner doesn't need much pushing at this point: "He understands that 'This is what makes me successful; this is where I'm deriving my confidence, so I'm going to continue on the program.'''
Isner's idea of a perfect day away from the court involves a boat, some beer and fishing for largemouth bass. He appears to be capable of reeling in some big ones on dry land as well.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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