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John Isner, inconvenient as ever

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Death. Taxes. John Isner creating inconvenient tennis conversations. This is July. Or August. Or January. Or March. It could be any month, and Isner would lead us into a difficult dialogue. 

Some careers — not just in tennis, but in any sport — regularly seem to create the most complicated discussions. Some careers avoid easy categorization and description at every turn. Isner owns that kind of career. It simply worked out that way… and this doesn’t even touch on the off-court aspect of his life. 

Isner won the Newport tournament this past weekend at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, defeating Alexander Bublik in the final. It is notable that in a week when four first-time tour champions were crowned — Fiona Ferro and Elena Rybakina (WTA), plus Nicolas Jarry and Dusan Lajovic (ATP) — Isner was the only champion who had previously won a tour title.

The fact that Isner won the only grass tournament played this past week might offer reason to comment on how grass demands familiarity, but the larger truth about grass is that its season is so brief to begin with. If we had a three-month grass season instead of only one, we could gain a lot more information and context about first-time tour champions on the various surfaces.

The complicated conversation John Isner elicits after his Newport win — more than the first-time-champion angle, and how grass plays into it — is the uneasy relationship between tour titles and overall results. This relationship flows from the relationship between year-round performance and big-tournament performance.

Isner will continue to be an example — not just in the remainder of his playing career, but after he retires — of the complex relationship between titles and results.

Isner’s Newport title on Sunday was his 15th. As a comparison, Fabio Fognini has only nine titles, Kei Nishikori 12, Marin Cilic 18. Isner’s title haul, relative to a lot of ATP pros, is superb. It is a notable achievement.

Yet, one has to realize that those 15 titles are comprised of 14 250s and one Masters 1000. True: a single Masters 1000 is something most of Isner’s peers lack. Yet, 14 250s speaks to an ability to thrive in the “lulls” of the tennis season, the times just after or before major tournaments, or other busy times of the season.

Houston is just after the Indian Wells-Miami double. Isner has won there.

Winston-Salem is just before the U.S. Open. Isner has won there.

Auckland is just before the Australian Open. Isner has won there.

Atlanta and Newport are just after Wimbledon. Isner has won in those places.

Ask yourself this basic question: If Isner had done well at the major tournaments, chiefly Wimbledon, would he have nearly this many titles?

Remember, Isner was roasted and toasted after the 26-24 fifth set against Kevin Anderson last year. He could not play Newport. It is clear that doing well at Wimbledon took away a prime chance to win a tour title.

What if Isner had made five Wimbledon semifinals over the years instead of one?

He might have only 11 titles and not 15… and in years when he didn’t play Newport, he might not have been as sharp in Atlanta, either.

Doing poorly at Wimbledon has helped Isner win 15 titles.

This is not a criticism of Isner, merely an obvious connection between titles here and results over there. Winning Newport this year was a partial product of not having done well at Wimbledon.

Does a tennis player want to win tour titles? Yes. Does a tennis player want to max out at the biggest tournaments? Yes.

Is this a complicated conversation involving John Isner? Yes.

If you want a difficult tennis conversation during these summer months, here it is.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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