The epic Wimbledon semifinal between Kevin Anderson and John Isner was a highlight of 2018 in tennis as well as a poignant reminder that the journey to tennis stardom is sometimes longer and more complicated than expected.
The parallels between the men and their experience is striking, almost as if the towering pair exists to confirm each other. Anderson, 32-years old, is 6-foot-8; Isner, 33, is 6-foot-10. Both men chose to play college tennis (Anderson for three seasons at the University of Illinois; Isner at the University of Georgia for the full four years). Both pros cracked the year-end top 10 and took part in the ATP Finals for the first time in this, their career years. Anderson finished No. 6 and Isner No. 10.
It seems only fitting the only head-to-head meeting since they took their games to their current levels was agonizingly close. Anderson outlasted Isner in the Wimbledon semifinal in July, a 26-24 in-the-fifth-set result. The match proved to be a tipping point, leading Wimbledon finally to adopt the fifth-set tiebreaker. And one that likely led to the Australian Open on Friday implementing one as well.
But neither man is ready to rest on his laurels.
“Kevin had a fantastic year,” Isner said recently in a conference call. “So did I. It was very cool to see us do so well at our ages, both of us coming from the college system. It says a lot about [the value of] college tennis, and about our professionalism. We’re gonna continue to work hard this off season and do as best as we can.”
Anderson, on the same call minutes later (both men will be playing in the New York Open in mid-February) was equally sanguine about the coming year. Referring to his appearance in the Wimbledon final, he said, “I feel it sets me up well for what I want to achieve next year. My motivation is as high as it’s ever been, so I don’t need to worry so much about my age as about what’s happening on the court.”
Isner’s year was eventful and remarkable. Deeply mired in a slump and playing fearful tennis through the first three months of the year, he hired longtime friend (and Bryan brothers coach) David Macpherson. Isner responded immediately to his new mentor’s message, which initially consisted almost exclusively of confidence building pep talks. Isner reversed his fortunes in the span of a few short weeks, winning his first Masters Series event in Miami. He sustained his momentum right through a life-altering experience in the early fall when he and his wife, Madison, had a baby girl.
“John has found himself in a good place,” Macpherson told ESPN.com. “He has perspective. Expectations aren’t eating him alive now. In the past when he had only tennis and wasn’t playing as well as he felt he could, it was stressful. Now he’s got clarity.”
Isner also has a surprisingly flexible and durable body for a man of his size and experience. It’s partly a dividend of his decision to complete college and turn pro relatively late in life (at 22), with no inflated expectations. “I could never have imagined this, at 33,” he told reporters at the Paris Masters in October. “When I left college, I just thought I could play tennis to delay getting a regular job and go there and try to make ends meet. But it’s been a very different experience for me. Fortunately.”
Second on the ATP Tour in ace production (at 22.5 per match), Isner has shown a great capacity to learn from experience and to understand just what that long, elastic frame is – and isn’t – designed to do. He’s learned that against the elite players he just can’t afford to get into defensive positions. Hence his ongoing work on the single most improved aspect of his game, serve return.
“Technically, John’s return has gotten better and better,” Macpherson said, “He’s more compact on the backswing, he’s accelerating through on consistent basis especially on big points. He’s trying to take control of big points as quickly as possible. In the past he gave servers the opportunity at 30-40 to play clutch and save break points.”
Isner is doing a lot of work on his movement, particularly footwork in anticipation of the new year. “Being a returner is like being a baseball hitter,” Macpherson said. “There are a lot of different pitches. But you know he’s going to throw it over the plate. In tennis there’s a lot of box to defend.”
Anderson is a more well-rounded player than Isner, partly because at their envelope-pushing height, even that two-inch disparity can make an disproportionate difference in critical areas like mobility and volleying proficiency. Anderson is more consistent in rallies and the more skillful defender, as he demonstrated in his impressive upset of Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Call that a validation match. True, Anderson was a surprise finalist at the 2017 US Open, but the highest-ranked player he defeated on his way to the final was No. 19 Pablo Carreno Busta, and Anderson was crushed comprehensively in the championship match by Rafael Nadal. Afterward, Anderson was left with the nagging feeling he was holding back, not fully trusting his game.
For that reason, the upset of defending Wimbledon champ Federer was a significant stepping stone. The subsequent 6½-hour marathon win over Isner left Anderson depleted, but all things considered, he acquitted himself well in the final. He no longer feels he needs to take his game to some next, breakthrough level in 2019. He believes it’s already there.
“Both those matches I trusted and believed in myself and my game, where maybe before I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Anderson said. “That was invaluable to me.”
Although Anderson has played two major finals, he’s never even made the final of a Masters Series event. “Getting to certain stages of tournaments — that will be biggest thing for me in 2019,” Anderson said.
Isner hasn’t played a major final, but he’s 1-2 in Masters finals. You can bet it has occurred to him that if Anderson can reach two major finals, he can at least make one before he calls it quits.
If anything, like Anderson, he’ll give it the old college try.