John Isner is making his return to competition from a knee injury during Davis Cup.
© Ron Angle
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – John Isner came to Jacksonville for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s first-round tie against Brazil unsure of how his injured right knee would respond to the intense week of practice and preparation for two best-of-five-set singles matches.
Isner suffered a bone bruise in his right knee during Hopman Cup to start the season and played just one ATP World Tour match afterward, losing in the opening round of the Australian Open tune-up in Sydney to Davis Cup teammate Ryan Harrison. He then withdrew from the Australian Open, as doctors prescribed rest as the best medicine.
But Isner, the top-ranked American man, accepted Captain Jim Courier’s invitation to be part of the U.S. Davis Cup team for this weekend’s tie, hoping he would be ready to return to competition in what would be his first home tie as an active player. Moreover, he was eager to play just hours from his home in North Carolina and his former collegiate stomping grounds in Athens, Ga. (Isner was an All-American and an NCAA team champion at the University of Georgia before moving on to the pro ranks.)
Isner, 27, said earlier this week that rest and ice had been helping and that the knee was feeling better. Just in case, however, Harrison came to Jacksonville to practice and be ready as the team’s second singles player. The other team members are singles player Sam Querrey and doubles stalwarts Bob and Mike Bryan.
But by the end of practice on Wednesday, the day before the official draw ceremony, Isner confirmed that he was good to play 10 sets – and no matter how many hours – to help the U.S. defeat Brazil.
At Thursday’s draw ceremony, Courier nominated Isner as the team’s No. 1 singles player, and he will play the second singles match Friday against Thiago Alves and then the first match Sunday against Thomaz Bellucci.
"To be honest, I didn’t know how my knee was going to react when I really started to practice hard, because it’s been a while," Isner said. "[But] my knee hasn’t been bothering me. I feel like I’m ready to go. This isn’t a shot in the dark for us, either. This is something we feel real solid about."
Courier agreed, having consulted with the U.S. Davis Cup team trainer and doctor. He also spoke with Isner about his health and what was best for him and the team.
"We came into the week looking for clarity on John’s knee, hoping it would respond the way it has," Courier said. "He practiced hard every day. He’s had no setbacks. From our eyes, we feel confident he’s ready and set for 10 sets of tennis if he needs to play them this weekend."
Isner was the hero of the U.S. Davis Cup team in its improbable 5-0 upset of Switzerland on the road to start the 2012 season, defeating 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in four sets on clay. Weeks later, he defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Indian Wells. And in the Davis Cup quarterfinals against France, he defeated Top 20 players Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon, again on clay, to help lead the U.S. to its first Davis Cup semifinal since 2008.
But by the end of the year, things stalled. Isner lost a marathon five-setter to Philipp Kohlschrieber in the third round of the US Open, finishing the year without advancing past the third round at any Slam. And he didn’t win back-to-back matches the rest of the fall, perhaps feeling the effects of some overscheduling, as he finished the year having played 66 matches.
Needing a change, Isner split with longtime coach Craig Boynton, with whom he broke into the Top 10 for the first time in his career in 2012, and began working with fellow Georgia Bulldog Michael Sell. Together, the two have continued laboring diligently on Isner’s return game to build a complement to his lethal forehand and the best serve in men’s tennis.
Due to the injury, however, Isner has had little chance to test out his revised game this year. Now he will be playing his first match in weeks in a five-set contest, which he says is never easy to prepare for, much less without recent match play.
But an intense week of Davis Cup practice with friends may be just what he needs to be ready to return to form, and Isner said he is not worried about reinjuring the knee.
"I haven’t really played a real competitive match in a while. I don’t really count what I did in Australia as ultracompetitive because I was a little banged up," Isner said. "Might have to shake a little bit of rust off out there. Anytime you play long matches, five sets, you’re always concerned. You know you’re going to have to, on the back end of that, rest up a little bit and do what you can to get your body back right."
He is looking forward to hearing the chants of "U-S-A!" in front of a home Davis Cup crowd for the first time, instead of hearing the boos that have characterized his previous six career ties on the road. He also wouldn’t mind hearing some chants for the Bulldogs either, from the many fellow alums in the Jacksonville area.
"I’m very much looking forward to it," he said of the weekend’s play. "I’m prepared to play as long as it takes. I think everyone on this team is."