Asia Tennis Travels: Catching up with American John Isner in Shanghai
SHANGHAI, China – In the first few days of the Shanghai Masters tournament, Courtney Nguyen sat down with American John Isner in Shanghai, China, to discuss his season thus far, his approach to managing the Asian swing of the tour and, of course, his top pick for a selfie.
SI.com: Can you summarize your season for us?
Isner: I feel like I've seen this season before, quite a few times. I've been where I'm at for quite a few years now. There's two ways to look at it. I'm proud of what I've done but I haven't broken through as I would have liked. But I've had a very good season. I've stayed healthy apart from the beginning of the year. I've won a lot of matches, too. I also think I've played better overseas which has helped me out a little bit. It's certainly been a good season but I think I can do better.
SI.com: Does being on tour still feel fresh to you? Or does it all feel like old hat?
Isner: It's still fresh mainly because I still feel really good. My body feels good. Even though I'm 29 I really feel better than I did at 25. Every tournament I play, since I'm playing at the top level, is a still great opportunity for me. That's how I try and approach all of these tournaments. A tournament like this, if I can make something happen then it's a career-changer for me. I have so many opportunities like that so I'll just keep plugging away.
SI.com: What did you think of this year’s U.S. Open final?
Isner: It's really cool. It's a final that not many people expected to see. The landscape is changing a little bit.
SI.com: Does it really feel like things are changing in the locker room? Earlier in the season some players said that after Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open, but others said it still felt the same and that the Big Four still dominated and everyone was on the outside looking in.
Isner: As far as rankings go, the top players are still there, especially the top three. They're not going away any time soon. But we had two guys outside of them win Slams this year. I think guys do have a little more belief but certainly those guys are cream of the crop.
SI.com: So there's more of an army of players who can cause the upsets now as opposed to just two or three?
Isner: I think so. I think there's a handful of players that can disrupt those guys. I think you're seeing players like Milos [Raonic] and Grigor [Dimitrov] and Kei [Nishikori] that have kind of broken through this year. Then you have guys like [Tomas] Berdych and [David] Ferrer who have always been there. I think the echelon below the top three, I don't think they're that far behind.
SI.com: I know you're a big sports fan. How are you keeping up with American sports while in Asia?
Isner: I wish I could say I've slept through every single night without waking up and checking football scores but I would be lying to you. My body just wakes up. When I arrived here I was a little jet lagged and I managed to watch every second of the Panthers game, from 1am to 4am, which is horrible. I need to not do that. Being over here it's tough for American sports except for Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football, where it's on when you wake up. I love football more than anything so I'm always connected to it and checking in on it.
SI.com: When was the first time you started to think you could make a living as a pro?
Isner: My junior year of college. I became the No. 1 player in college and I was 21 years old. I improved so much from my sophomore to junior year. I really shot up and started beating a lot of players in college. I knew at that point if I was one of the best in college I could do some damage on the pros. I didn't think I'd be able to do what I've done, though.
SI.com: What's one match in your career you wish you could replay?
Isner: There's a few. I've had match points in a couple of tournament finals, a few on my serve as well, against good friends like Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish. Those guys I like to think have stolen a few titles from me. I've won my fair share of very close matches as well.
SI.com: Do you have a post-loss ritual?
Isner: Normally? Get the heck out of town. If it's in the States I'll pop back home for a few days. That's one of the big advantages when I'm playing in the States. I need a few hours to get over the loss and collect my thoughts. Sometimes when I lose a match that I don't think I should lose I'm not all there. I need time to digest it.
SI.com: Is it frustrating sometimes that you have to do your press obligations within an hour of your match ends?
Isner: Sometimes you do it right after the match. I was very unprofessional earlier this year after a match in D.C. The match I lost to Steve [Johnson], I should have taken more time and not done press right away. But that's just how it is sometimes.
SI.com: Who's the first pro tennis player you ever met?
Isner: Oh my gosh. Honestly, this may sound weird, but I think it was James Blake when I was in college.
SI.com: Did you ever go to tournaments when you were young?
SI.com: What's the first pro tournament you ever went to?
Isner: The one I played in.
SI.com: You always talk about your struggle to get comfortable overseas. Do you take any creature comforts with you to make it easier?
Isner: I'll take body wash me, just stuff from home. I'll travel with some mixed nuts. Sometimes it just feels nice to see "Planters" on a side of a can. It puts me at ease. I'll bring peanut butter because I eat peanut butter and honey before matches.
SI.com: If you could improve your game mentally, physically, or tactically, which would you choose?
Isner: I think I would say tactically. I think I'm in pretty good shape and mentally, there are moments where I feel like I haven't been good on the court, I feel like I'm pretty good there. But tactically I feel like I can improve on. Being more aggressive, there are certain shots I hit too much and shouldn't be hitting. I feel like I can get better there.
SI.com: Do you ever get sick of people talking about your height?
Isner: Yes and no. It certainly gets a little old but at the same time it comes with the territory. I'm not normal, especially as a tennis player. My stature sort of goes against the grain -- I can't help it.
SI.com: Do you get gawked at a lot in Asia?
Isner: You know what? I really don't think I do. I feel like people look at me more when I walk around an airport in the U.S. Maybe people just mind their own business more here.
SI.com: What's your favorite non-U.S. stop on tour?
Isner: I really do like this tournament [in Shanghai.] But it would be either here or Paris, both the French Open and Bercy. Paris is my favorite European city.
SI.com: Do you have any pet peeves?
Isner: I have a few. Laundry folded not to my liking. I'm pretty particular there. If anyone pokes me in my ribs, that drives me crazy. People who are messy...
SI.com: You sound like a clean and organized guy.
Isner: I am clean. My hotel room is pristine. Whenever I get home after being overseas, even if it's 2 a.m., I'll unpack, do laundry or vacuum my room. I'm a total spaz.
SI.com: So the folding, what are we talking about? Does your closet look like the GAP?
Isner: It's not like I'm the best folder. My mom was the best mom ever but she was actually really bad at folding clothes. I feel like I've been doing my own laundry since I was five years old. So I've had a lot of practice with it.
SI.com: If you could have any retired legend coach you who would you choose?
Isner: I'd say Jim Courier. He has coached me before at Davis Cup. He's helped me improve so much, tactically and mentally. All the guys who have played for him really like him. He's tough -- extremely tough -- and at first I didn't like it, honestly. But I think he's the best there is. There's a reason I've played some of my best matches at Davis Cup.
SI.com: Most embarrassing moment on court?
Isner: I've never had any run to the bathroom moments yet. I'm sure I’ve fallen over at some point.
SI.com: If you could take a selfie with anyone, who would it be?
Isner: That's a very good question. I think it would be a former president. Maybe George W. Bush. I've met him before when I was in college and one time in Dallas. That would be cool.