Just six weeks ago, John Isner was the hottest player in men's tennis. In the wake of some stunning early-season results, he scored Davis Cup wins over Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to anchor the United States' victory in the World Group quarterfinals, prompting forecasts of glory from around the globe.
As the French Open approaches, people are wondering if Isner -- or any American man -- can make a significant impact.
Before the year even started, U.S. team captain Jim Courier called Isner "probably the most disruptive force in the men's game. His serve is just a monster. No one from the top down likes to deal with it. He's not the best player in the world by any means, but he's the least enjoyable to play. If he keeps getting better, the top ten is where he should live."
As if on cue, Isner knocked off Roger Federer during Davis Cup play in early February -- in Switzerland and on clay, no less -- then stormed his way to the finals of the prestigious Indian Wells event, knocking off Novak Djokovic in the semifinals before losing to Federer in the final. By the time the U.S. had maintained its Davis Cup supremacy in France, it was apparent that Isner's movement, backhand and service return were superior to anything he'd displayed in the past.
Andy Murray was among those paying respects. In a Tennis Space feature, asked by his brother, Jamie, if he could have one shot from a rival player, he answered, "I'd take John Isner's serve, for sure. It's probably the best serve ever -- the second serve, as well. That would make life a lot easier."
Feeling especially bold, Isner even campaigned to play mixed doubles with Serena Williams at the Olympics (wasn't that supposed to be Andy Roddick's territory?).
"I may be the odd man out," he said, "but I'm pretty good friends with Serena. Might need to bribe her, maybe send her a gift in the mail. But to have her on my team would be a big advantage."
As a player known for his humility and team-spirit brand of camaraderie, Isner isn't the type to rest on his laurels. But he hasn't been the same player since the outdoor-clay event in Houston last month. He reached the final, as expected, but then lost a match he felt he should have won, 6-3 in the third, to Argentina's Juan Monaco.
Since then: clay-court disasters. He bombed out of Madrid without winning a match (Marin Cilic took him down in a pair of tiebreakers), then lost a second-rounder in Rome to local hero Andreas Seppi, 7-5 in the third.
Is this any way to approach Roland Garros? Remember, though, that one of the most revealing matches of Isner's career took place at last year's French Open. It was a terribly bittersweet affair; he drew Rafael Nadal in the first round, and after taking a 2-1 lead in sets by winning consecutive tiebreakers, Isner finally lost in five. But as he has said on more than one occasion, "I'd rather have lost in the first round, to such a great player, than last a few more rounds. It was a tremendous experience for me."
It's hardly a stretch to say that Isner represents the United States' best hope on the men's side at the French. How it looks for the others in this week's top 100:
On other fronts
A roar of encouragement soon turned to bedlam as Federer took it into a tiebreaker. Whatever doubts had existed about Djokovic -- heartbroken in Monte Carlo, bummed out in Madrid -- were now thoroughly erased; it was clear that the world No. 1 was in top form and fully motivated. Watching at home, savoring the sight of the good red clay and Foro Italico's classic setting, I dearly wished I could be there. Rome served as the perfect lead-in to Paris, and here's a red-wine toast to tradition.