John Isner and Intentionally Slower Surfaces

Wimbledon decided to look into slowing its courts down and increasing the length of points after the 1998 men’s final.  The rest of the tour tended to follow Wimbledon’s lead as outdoor and indoor hard courts were slowed down, indoor carpet events went away, and tennis balls were slowed down too.  It may not be fair to pin the slowing of the sport down to one match, but that match may have crystallized a brewing concern about tennis becoming dull.

Not exactly a Wimbledon serving clash

Pete Sampras had a great all-court game to go along with his powerful serve.  Pistol Pete claimed 7 Wimbledon titles.  Goran Ivanisevic, like Sampras, was a great athlete even if his volleys let him down at times.  Goran finally grabbed an elusive Wimbledon title in 2001 one year before grass courts slowed down.  Richard Krajicek and Michael Stich each won Wimbledon with huge serves and strong net games.  Boris Becker won 3 Wimbledon titles and reached 4 other championship matches by meshing his huge serve with an athletic all-court game as well.

To varying degrees, Sampras, Becker, Ivanisevic, Stich, and Krajicek won Wimbledon titles by blending their huge serves with other gifts.  Some even had marketable personalities (emergency Goran) to go along with their tennis gifts.  I don’t think anyone can say that the huge servers who claimed 13 of 17 Wimbledon titles between 1985-2001 were one-dimensional players.  Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi, and Pat Cash claimed the other 4 crowns in that period.  Champions Becker, Ivanisevic, Edberg, and Agassi combined for 9 runner-up finishes as well.  Ivan Lendl, Patrick Rafter, Jim Courier, Cedric Pioline, Kevin Curren, and Mal Washington combined for 8 runner-up finishes in that period.  These 17 finals generally featured players with multiple gifts and varied playing styles even if 13 of the 17 finals were won by players with huge serves.

Still, my educated guess is that a fear grew throughout the 1990s regarding what might happen at Wimbledon.  I am not attacking Wayne Arthurs or Greg Rusedski, but neither had the well-rounded game of Michael Stich that took him to the final round at Roland Garros and the US Open as well as to his Wimbledon title.  Greg Rusedski reached the 1997 US Open final losing in 4 sets despite holding a break lead in the 4th set that could have pushed that match to a deciding 5th set.  Would people buy tickets and would advertisers buy commercial time if tennis matches were increasingly being decided by players who could hold serve on cruise control and contest a number of tie-breaks that served as a relief to viewers rather than a culmination of a set?

I liked the 1990s

I am a tennis nut and loved watching tennis in the 1990s.  I have to admit that looking back on some of those matches is not a thrill for me in the manner that I might look back at Jim Courier upsetting Andre Agassi at the 1989 French Open.  For every Sampras-Becker match, Wimbledon 1995 produced there was a Boris Becker vs 2.03M/6’8″ Dick Norman who ran a lucky loser status in the qualifying rounds to a Wimbledon round of 16 showing in 1995.  I’d watch a match like Sampras-Becker 1995 today and be thrilled to do so.  I’d be hard-pressed to watch a match like Boris Becker vs. Dick Norman today.  The reason being that points today not ended with a huge serve, or a quick combination of shots (a big forehand or a knockoff volley after that big serve) tend to be darned entertaining.  Players cover so much real-estate when the ball is in play and hit imaginative shots that I have to say the decision to slow down tennis was a good one.  Aces and short points today tend to add to rather than detract from a match as they punctuate tense moments in a match.

Two Trends Converged and Tennis Changed

Tennis has slowed down over the past 15-20 years.  This has led to more rallies and a generally sustained uptick in the popularity of men’s tennis.  A former pro-player in the 1970s once told me in the 1990s that green clay was the reason for the tennis boom.  He said, “Fans love seeing guys battle and har-tru allowed for that to happen.”(1) Tennis has been said to be in a golden age today that may mirror the green clay-induced boom of the 1970s.

Another change was brewing around the time that tennis courts were slowing.  Gustavo Kuerten was one of the first pro players to start using polyester strings.  He won the 1997 Roland Garros title and backed that up with two more Roland Garros titles, an ATP World Championship victory indoors in 2000, and a few outdoor hard court titles.  Guga moved well and was a jaw-dropping shotmaker.  He was in some ways a prototype for today’s pro game.  Slower courts blending with new stringing technologies have paved the way to this golden era.

Tennis in this era tends to produce a blend of power, stamina, speed, defense, and offense that draws a fan in on multiple levels.  It also may inspire a fan to pick up a racquet and try to master these varied skills at a public park or tennis club.  I am not sure that an ace contest does that.  Slower courts and today’s strings have generated an era of nearly no bad matches.  Even one-sided affairs tend to produce entertaining tennis.

photo (2)
Isner’s Serve is the Best in the World

The Best Laid Plans Run into John Isner 

If tennis conspired to make sure that players needed more than a massive serve to play in let alone win big tournaments, John Isner’s serving acumen has proved that exceptions are possible.  This certainly could be read as a slam on Isner.  I don’t see it that way.  I watched Isner up close at Indianapolis and Cincinnati in 2009.  His fitness and confidence have improved since that time.  Isner is thought of as being a hard worker and a true professional.  He has the best tennis serve in the world.  Isner has developed a reliable forehand putaway (he could always put balls away with his forehand, but his big wing is much more consistent than it once was).  All of this shows that Isner has built his body, strategy, and game around his elite serve.(3)

Isner won Miami 2018 on a slow hard court in humid conditions to claim his maiden Masters 1000 shield.  Isner was runner-up at 3 faster playing Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells 2012, Cincinnati 2013, and Paris 2016).  Isner won Atlanta 2018.  Isner also reached the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal round defeating hard-serving Milos Raonic in the quarterfinal round before falling to Kevin Anderson 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 24-26 in the Wimbledon semifinal.  Anderson’s serve is his primary weapon but is not as big as Isner’s.  Anderson’s overall game is far more well-rounded.  Raonic too has more weapons than Isner, but Raonic has had health problems and seems to have a less clear vision of how to leverage his massive serve than Isner(4).

John Isner had some chances in the first half of the 4th set to grab a break and serve his way into the Wimbledon final.  Isner was one game away from the Wimbledon final every time he held serve from 4-4 in the 4th set forward.  John Isner has won 14 singles titles and been runner-up at 12 titles.  He has 24 wins versus top 10 players and is currently embedded in the top 10.  He holds one of 2018’s Masters 1000 shields.  Isner is squarely in the top 10.  If tennis is largely favoring longer points, slower conditions, and matches not dominated by serves, it seems as though John Isner has bucked the trend.

How has Isner done it?

In most matches, Isner is at worst going to lose a set by a single break of serve.  The second worst scenario is that he will lose a set in a tiebreak.  That puts a lot of pressure on an opponent.  Isner’s biggest problem is that his best case scenario most of the time is to win a set by a single break of serve with the fallback option of winning a set in a tiebreak.

Isner played marathon matches versus Mahut and Anderson at Wimbledon, but he has played a lot of other long matches.  Isner tends to play long matches against players far worse than his ranking/seeding just as he can push players seeded ahead of him into long matches.  Isner may be the best server on tour, but he is also among the lest impactful returners on tour.  If Isner could strike enough quality returns, he might put deep fear into both players and the promotors or tennis alike.

I don’t think tennis’ leaders need to fear that players such as Isner will push the game toward where it was in the mid-1990s.  However, it is possible that players of his stature could simplify the sport enough to make the shot-making and movement many of us have come to love obsolete.  Twenty-year-old fears for tennis may have some life after all.




(1) While slowing hard courts and balls down may have led to these type of rallies, I doubt today’s courts are as forgiving on the body as the North American summer har-tru circuit was.

(2) Consider that at least one US-born male player won at least one major per year from 1989-2003 and tennis is likely more popular today in the US than it was in 2003.  Djokovic and Nadal killing each other in the 2011 US Open one round after they turned Roger Federer and Andy Murray back in the semifinal round was captivating because of the level of play rather than the birthplaces of the competitors.

Much more entertaining than seeing Pioline get swamped by Sampras in 1993

(3) Isner is far better than the player I saw win the first set off of Roger Federer at the 2007 US Open only to miss a series of shots that made me wonder if Isner belonged on the pro tour.  Isner is fit, has maximized his methods for taking advantage of his serve, and is confident in this formula.

(4) Carlos Moya had Roanic playing really smart tennis in 2016.  Outside of 2016, I have not seen Raonic play as confidently as he should.  Raonic also has a similar floor to Isner in terms of losing a set by either a single break or in a tie-break, but Raonic could (could) leverage that pressure much more so than Isner because his returning fundamentals are better than John Isner’s.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Mike Swanquis says:

    Nice article, Dan. While not at the levels of the pre-slowed surface/super-strings era I feel we’re also seeing a return of the importance of the volley on the relatively faster surfaces, too. (But don’t hold your breath for the emergence of Edberg 2.0 in the top 10 of the ATP anytime soon.)

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