Tennis, of course, is an individual sport, so John Isner knows his team mentality seems silly. But he doesn't mind.
“I’ve always considered myself a team player even though I’m in an individual sport,” he says. “Four years in North Carolina [high school] and four years at [the University of] Georgia. I love competing for other people. It is so much bigger than myself.”
Speaking in Portland before the July Davis Cup tie against Croatia—a tie the U.S. lost 3-2 to eliminate them in the quarterfinals—Isner cited Davis Cup as one of his favorite parts of the tennis calendar. “I enjoy the competition, but I enjoy the practice week as well,” he says. “There is such good camaraderie and good work done off the court when we go out to dinner and goof around. It is a very different atmosphere.” The environment is a stark contrast to life during the year, where “we are on tour by ourselves, playing for ourselves.”
And while Davis Cup doesn’t always last an entire year, those connections—those team moments—carry over to the tour, such as with Isner’s relationship with Jack Sock. “I do feel like I have a role, not so much with on the court what you should or shouldn't do, but hanging out and being a good friend to him,” Isner says. “Jack and I get along so well. He is one of my best friends on tour and I am glad to have him around and hope to be around for a long time.”
Isner has always loved team sports. He loves hockey, basketball, baseball, but is most excited about football and the community it entails. He’s already looking forward to the seasons of the Georgia Bulldogs and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, which he calls his “two passions.”
Isner’s tennis notoriety has afforded him the opportunity to merge his fandom of sports into friendships. “I have been very luck to make good friends with a lot of the Carolina Panthers,” he says. “Steve Smith is one of my really good friends and I have gotten to know him.” While Smith now plays for the Baltimore Ravens, Isner’s regular training in Florida has him working alongside athletes from other sports. Those friendships are sports related, but Isner says he doesn’t talk much about tennis.
“I talk about it enough,” he says. “It is good to get inside their minds. It is very different. They play a game in one city and the next night in another city. It is interesting to see how they prepare.”
Isner’s powerful 6'10" frame offers an imposing presence on the tennis court, but he doesn’t think it would have translated too well to his other favorite sport. “I would not have done well in the NFL,” he says with a laugh. “I love watching it, but I’m too tall and 40 pounds too light.”
And while Isner may not have translated into a great receiver, those NFL friends can’t really handle his sport either. Too often he has seen the greats of their games pick up a tennis racket to handle a service return only to look foolish. “Returning a serve like mine is like trying to hit a 100 mph fastball,” he says. “If you don’t play tennis for a living, you will have a hard time.”
Sports dominates Isner’s life, whether tennis or fandom, but it by no means envelopes the entirety of the 31-year-old’s interests. He’s taken an interest in politics over the last decade—his father, Bob, is running for Congress in Greensboro, N.C. “When I was 18 I was able to vote and did not vote,” he says. “I was very disappointed in myself. I didn't get into politics until after college.”
He says that 2016 certainly offers a “very interesting” year in politics and that keeping up with it makes him “feel so much smarter,” especially since he fills most of his knowledge with sports. “I think I could be interested in [a future run at office.] I would start at the local level. It is fun to banter with people, but try to gain as much knowledge as I can.”
As Isner ages, his interests evolve. The way he has trained has changed, putting a focus on working smarter instead of harder and staying as “healthy and fresh” as much as possible. That interest in health has translated into a hobby.
“I’ve always eaten fairly healthy, I know what to eat and what not to eat and I love to cook,” he says. “That is another passion of mine. If I am home for a week, I cook every night. I live next to the grocery store and don’t go out to eat. I don’t consider myself a big spender, but I spend on food.”
If he had to cook a signature dish, Isner says he’d create something simple, focused on the grill. An ideal meal includes steak, chicken or pork on the grill (but, really, steak is his favorite meat) with a side of “my favorite food in the world”—sweet potatoes—and some sort of salad and a vegetable, such as Brussels sprouts.
Have Isner’s ever-improving cooking skills gotten to competition-ready levels? “I am getting better and am starting to work on my presentation,” he says. “But if I was timed I would spaz out. I take my time with everything, especially cutting. I won’t be on any Iron Chef shows.”
But knowing Isner’s love of sport, competition and a team environment and his propensity for drawing in friends with his welcoming personality, don’t be surprised to find Isner talking politics, sports and food with anyone from Sock to Smith to a celebrity chef.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.