Matt Zemek

John Isner shouldn’t be expected to make major finals — not with his inconsistent backhand and a return of serve which hasn’t improved to the degree it needs to in order to win six matches in Melbourne, Paris, SW19, or New York. Unlike Milos Raonic, who has developed touch and feel from the back of the court and is better at playing defense, Isner’s weaknesses have not been shored up at the highest levels of competition. It certainly makes sense that he is a far better Masters 1000 player than a major-tournament player.

Yet, while acknowledging that Isner does not have the game of a player who should be contesting major titles, it is nevertheless a surprise how rarely he has been able to win four matches in the same major tournament: only once.

If Isner’s M-1000 record — enhanced by his straight-set win over Juan Martin del Potro in Friday afternoon’s first Miami semifinal — is to be seen as the impressive body of work it genuinely represents, it can’t be denied that the paucity of major quarterfinal appearances is also part of his story. Many might be surprised at how many Masters semifinals and finals Isner has reached, but one could make a convincing case for the claim that his relative lack of major quarterfinals (and at least one semifinal) is the bigger story of his career.

Yes, of course, the matches in which Isner played marathon fifth sets because his serve was too good to get immediately broken and his return was too poor to ever convert a break-point chance were disastrous for his chances of making a deep run. He had no legs in the next match on the occasions when he won a supremely long match. No one needs to flesh out or explain that point.

Yet, Isner has played dozens of major tournaments without having to play extended-length fifth sets, and he still couldn’t take advantage of those. The point here is not to suggest that Isner should REGULARLY make major quarterfinals with his serve and attacking game; it is merely to note how improbable it seems that Isner has not managed to take advantages of circumstances more often, as has been the case in Miami this week.

His draw has not been easy, but Isner has taken advantage of Marin Cilic’s chronic inability to play well in Masters tournaments; Hyeon Chung’s comparative inexperience; and Juan Martin del Potro’s fatigue after multiple weeks of very heavy lifting, especially a highly taxing three-set quarterfinal win over Milos Raonic. Delpo was flat at the start of this Miami semifinal. Isner pounced and made full use of it.

Yes, the best-of-three format certainly helps Isner — no one is suggesting otherwise — but it is striking to note that for all the times Isner puts the pieces together in a Masters tournament, he can’t do anything remotely close at a major. No, Isner should not have the same success rate at the majors which he enjoys in a Masters event. The eye-popping reality is the enormity of the disparity in results between the two tiers of tournaments.

It all leads to a very simple question with a complicated answer for Isner: Is the glass half-full or half-empty when assessing his career?

We could end the conversation right there, but Isner’s complicated career merits reflection when measured against other kinds of careers.

Isner’s glass-half-full interpretation would cite Philipp Kohlschreiber, a man who went eight years without a Masters quarterfinal before finally breaking that cold spell at Indian Wells a few weeks ago. If you think Isner’s repeated whiffs at majors are baffling and disappointing, Kohlschreiber offers an even more extreme example. When measured against the German, Isner’s career is a luminous tower of achievement.

Isner’s glass-half-empty interpretation could exist through the prism of both Cilic, a three-time major finalist who often fails at majors but has evolved into “the guy who produces a great run every now and then, despite his inconsistency.” A half-empty view is also reinforced by the man Isner defeated on Friday. Del Potro’s victory at Indian Wells marked his first Masters title. He, however, doesn’t stub his toe at the U.S. Open the way Isner regularly does. Delpo has much more game than Isner (not on Friday — he was spent — but that’s not a verdict on the overall quality of the two players if equally fresh or tired), but it  remains that he is good for at least one deep run a year at the majors if his body is healthy.

Great athletes stuff their trophy cabinets with new additions. John Isner is not a great athlete, but there are so many good athletes who constantly sniff opportunities but can’t translate them into career-changing moments. Just once or twice a year, they would love to cross thresholds it has been historically difficult for them to surmount. That “once or twice” moment repeatedly eludes their grasp.

Is John Isner’s career the story of how a man has forged a productive career despite his flawed return and backhand, or is his career the story of how a man with an often untouchable serve could make only one major quarterfinal, and has gone seven years without repeating that accomplishment?

The answer might very well be both-and, not either-or. It is up to your eyes to determine if the glass is half-full or half-empty.


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