Tuesday March 12th, 2013

John Isner has struggled to assume the mantle as top American player (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images) John Isner has struggled to assume the mantle as top American player, losing again this week. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Top-seeded Americans John Isner and Sloane Stephens continued their respective slumps with opening-round losses at the BNP Paribas Open.

Isner's 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4 loss to Lleyton Hewitt stung particularly hard because Isner was a finalist here last year and the loss extended what has been a disappointing seven-month stretch that will see him tumble out of the top 20 for the first time since 2011. Stephens crashed out the same day, losing to Urszula Radwanska 6-3, 6-4, meaning she's won only one match since the Australian Open.

The spotlight does not dim when the losses start racking up. The interview requests stay constant and so does the interest, which means a steady line of inquiry on a near-weekly basis as to why players are losing, slumping and failing to meet expectations. Some handle it better than others. For years, Andy Roddick shouldered that burden, acting as a shield from all the criticism that can rain down. Now that he's gone, those questions fall to the next generation of Americans, like Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison. The scrutiny can be tough.

"Andy always got hammered with all those questions," Harrison said, "and he did a great job of staying focused and staying the course despite all that weight that he carried."

Isner's and Stephens' early losses foreshadowed two unfortunate results for the Americans this week: No American woman reached the fourth round, and Isner's loss meant there was a chance there might not be any American men in the top 20 for the first time since the computer rankings were introduced. In other words, there's quite a bit of negativity floating in the desert air this week and the players can feel it.

In my experience, Isner has always been introspective, honest and thoughtful with the media after wins and losses. But the wear and tear of both the losses and his being called in to explain them has clearly worn him down. Here's a verbatim series of questions and answers from his post-match press conference:

Q. You're defending final round points coming in here. Any pressure?


Q. You weren't even thinking about it?

JOHN ISNER: 2013 is completely different to 2012. Has nothing to do with it.

Q. You want to just assess your year?

JOHN ISNER: It's not great so far.

Q. Are you practicing well? Do you feel like you're striking the ball well in practice?


Q. So you're not quite bringing that into matches?


Q. Because?

JOHN ISNER: You tell me. I don't know.

At this point, Isner admits that he wouldn't mind going back to being the undercard where the crowds are smaller, the expectations lower and the spotlight elsewhere. After facing Hewitt on Stadium Court, Isner said he would have preferred an outer court.

"You know, honestly, I prefer actually to sort of work my way through a tournament a lot of times not necessarily on stadium," he said. "I have always felt like I sort of played better that way, especially in the earlier rounds.

"I just felt more comfortable early on in a tournament with I guess the light's not on me all the time. It's a little bit tough. I'd rather be in this position than not, but I don't know. I guess I have a little taste of how these guys always on stadium feel."

A few hours later, Stephens lost on that same Stadium Court and echoed Isner's feelings.

"I would have definitely been used to playing first on at 11:00 on Court Timbuktu back there," Stephens said. "It's tough being [a] night match on a Saturday. All your friends want to come and this and that. It's definitely tough, but I guess that's just what happens when you're slightly good. "It's been fun," she said of all the attention and television appearances, "but all I want to do is play tennis. I don't care about all this other stuff. I just want to be on the court, have fun, enjoy myself, play like how I played in Australia, and just do what I was doing before all this happened."

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