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Isner escaping shadow of marathon match

John Isner

One unforgettable match at Wimbledon this past June transformed John Isner into one of America's most recognizable tennis player. (AP)

Wimbledon. Everyone still wants to talk about Wimbledon.

Since his I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw-78-68-fifth-set-marathon win over Nicholas Mahut at the All-England Club in June, John Isner says the only time that he has not been asked about his epic match with Nicholas Mahut was a 96-hour respite three weeks ago when he turned his cell phone off for four days at home in North Carolina.

“Earlier in the summer when physically I wasn't feeling well, I was answering questions about it every day, and it kind of got a little bit annoying,” Isner said. “But now it's fine. I know I'm going to have to answer questions about it for maybe as long as I live. I was just happy to be a part of that match.  My name will be in the record books forever.  That's not going to get broken.”

When you part of an event that seeps into the popular culture -- the Associated Press refers to Isner as “marathon man” -- the questions come with the territory. Nearly 10 weeks ago, Isner and Mahut slugged it out for a record 11 hours and five minutes spread over three days. It was the longest match in tennis history and the final stats looked something out of a video game (2,198 total strokes, 980 points overall, 215 aces).

Things were much easier for Isner on Wednesday evening. His 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win over Portugal’s Frederico Gil clocked in at a brisk one hour and 57 minutes. Had Isner done a better job of converting on his break chances (he was 3-of-17), Gill would have been back in his hotel room even sooner. Unlike the temperatures on the court earlier in the day -- it reached 109 degrees -- Isner played under a steady breeze and comfortable conditions. He broke Gil in the ninth game of the first set and cruised from there. At 6-foot-9, with a huge serve and a big forehand, Isner plays power tennis and has a simple charter: Hold serve. He finished with 19 aces and won 92 percent (47-of-51) of his first serves.

At 25, Isner is both a curiosity– especially at 6-9 and 245 pounds -- as well as a rising player on the ATP Tour. He is the No. 18  at the Open -- up from his 2009 end-of-year ranking of No. 34-- and is 30-18 in matches this year, including winning his first title at the moderately-sized Auckland tournament. Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Isner injured his right ankle during a match against David Nalbandian and did not expect to play as late as five days ago. He was initially told in Cincinnati that he had torn ligaments in his ankle but said the examination was on a low‑grade MRI machine and did not show everything it needed to show. He stayed in Cincinnati for a couple of days afterward for treatment with specialists. When he returned to Florida, his foot started feeling better. A second MRI showed there was no tear. “It was everything but torn,” Isner said. “It was barely hanging on.  I definitely screwed it up, but it wasn't as bad as I originally thought.  That's why I'm here.”

From Gill’s perspective, Isner showed no signs of limited movement.  “He’s a big server but for his size he moved very well,” Gill said.

Asked how to defend Isner’s serve, Gil wiped his forehead with resignation before answering. “You try to react but you can’t find angles [to return] that you normally find with other players,” Gill said. “He's so tall and his serve comes off from very high.”

Isner said that his ankle was not an issue during the match but rather his legs felt heavy from a lack of training. He said that he was not worried of aggravating his ankle further at the Open. “I don't see any issues with me reinjuring it, knock on wood,” said Isner.

Because of his newfound fame from Wimbledon, Louis Armstrong Stadium was three-quarters filled for his match against Gill, the No. 87 player in the world who holds the distinction being the highest-ranked Portuguese player the history of the ATP rankings. Isner is the second highest-ranked American in the draw behind Andy Roddick and the most recognizable active American tennis player behind Roddick and James Blake. “Maybe a little bit more people know me than last year obviously because of the match I played at Wimbledon,” Isner said. " It caught on over here in the States.  In that regard, more people do know me.  But as far as I'm concerned, I'm anything but a celebrity.”

Well, even limited fame does have it privileges. Isner is the face for Crown BMW in his hometown of Greensboro, and the commercials he does for the company earned him a 7-series BMW. "It's a huge car," he told the Greensboro News & Record. "It's really roomy. I fit pretty comfortably in it."

Isner is also becoming more comfortable as a member of the sport’s Top 20 but still has yet to break through at a major. His best result in Grand Slam play this year came when he lost to Andy Murray in the fourth round of he Australian Open. Last year he advanced to the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open -- including his biggest victory to date, an upset of Andy Roddick -- before losing to Fernando Verdasco of Spain. He’ll face Switzerland’s Marco Chiudinelli -- the 63rd-ranked player in the world -- in the second round on Friday or Saturday.